Braille Monitor                                                     November 2007

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We Want Cars that Sound like Cars

by Daniel B. Frye

A hundred and fifty members of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland and neighboring East Coast affiliates assembled in front of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) on Wednesday, October 3, 2007, to protest the agency’s failure to incorporate blindness-specific modifications in the manufacture of hybrid cars and other low-emissions vehicles in regulations pursuant to the Maryland Clean Cars Act of 2007. Highlighting the real dangers of unmodified quiet vehicles to blind pedestrians, Federationists marched, chanted, and carried signs on the public sidewalk in front of the MDE, in plain view of passing traffic. Shouting slogans like “We want cars that sound like cars,” “Quiet cars give me a run-down feeling,” and “Environmental not detrimental,” protesters made it clear that the NFB, while valuing the environmental benefits of hybrid vehicles, also wants these ecologically friendly products to make a sound sufficient to alert blind—and indeed all--pedestrians of their presence.

Our protest garnered significant press coverage, including an exclusive Associated Press national print article; coverage on WYPR, the Baltimore-based National Public Radio affiliate; and local television coverage from all of the major networks. Jay Leno of NBC’s Tonight Show even made mention of our concerns about quiet vehicles in his monologue of Thursday, October 4, 2007.

A hearse prepares to drive away carrying Rosy Carranza’s body in a casket.By way of background, the NFB of Maryland was the first Federation affiliate in the United States to have language adopted in state legislation requiring an appropriate administrative agency with responsibility for regulating hybrid vehicles to take into consideration the needs of blind pedestrians. Section 6-C of the Maryland Clean Cars Act of 2007 directed the MDE to “consider the needs” of the blind in relation to quiet hybrid vehicles. When the proposed regulations implementing this law were released for public comment, however, they contained not a single word addressing this critical issue. In view of the MDE’s flagrant disregard of their legislative mandate to consider the potential impact of quiet hybrid vehicles on blind pedestrians, the NFB of Maryland determined to make its concerns known to both policymakers and the general public. Having been exasperated by this total disregard of the importance of the quiet car issue, Maryland affiliate leaders decided both to provide public comment on the absence of blindness-specific considerations in the regulations and to escalate the visibility of the organization’s concerns to the general public through a protest.

After demonstrating for almost an hour, designated speakers for the public hearing addressing the pending regulations filed into the auditorium to sign in and take their seats. The balance of the protesters gathered for a little street theater designed to dramatize the potentially deadly threat that hybrid vehicles pose to blind pedestrians. The driver of the silent Toyota Prius, rented especially for this occasion to illustrate the car’s stealthy characteristics, pretended to hit and kill Rosy Carranza, coordinator of program services in the National Federation of the Blind’s Department of Affiliate Action. While onlookers mourned her untimely death, her body was recovered from the street, gingerly placed in a coffin, and loaded into a hearse. Protesters lined up behind the hearse to circumnavigate the MDE parking lot before entering the hearing. MDE security personnel initially declined to admit the hearse to their property (the MDE offices are on privately leased property), but they eventually yielded in response to chants of “Let us in, let us in.” Once they had paid appropriate respects, all demonstration participants entered the building to attend the hearing.

The text of the Associated Press article about the protest dated October 2, 2007, which was reprinted with minor variations in at least fifty newspapers across the country, follows:

Blind People Say Hybrids Are Hazard
by Ben Nuckols

Gas-electric hybrid vehicles, the status symbol for the environmentally conscientious, are coming under attack from a constituency that doesn't drive: the blind. Because hybrids make virtually no noise at slower speeds when they run solely on electric power, blind people say they pose a hazard to those who rely on their ears to determine whether it's safe to cross the street or walk through a parking lot.

"I'm used to being able to get sound cues from my environment and negotiate accordingly. I hadn't imagined there was anything I really wouldn't be able to hear," said Deborah Kent Stein, chairwoman of the National Federation of the Blind's Committee on Automotive and Pedestrian Safety. "We did a test, and I discovered, to my great dismay, that I couldn't hear it."

The tests--admittedly unscientific--involved people standing in parking lots or on sidewalks who were asked to signal when they heard several different hybrid models drive by. "People were making comments like, 'When are they going to start the test?' And it would turn out that the vehicle had already done two or three laps around the parking lot," Stein said.

As gas prices continue to rise--along with concern about harmful emissions--hybrid cars are increasing in popularity. New hybrid vehicle registrations grew more than 49 percent nationwide in the first seven months of 2007 compared with the same period in 2006, according to R.L. Polk & Co., an automotive research firm. Toyota Motor Corp. has sold nearly four hundred and sixty thousand of the most popular hybrid model, the Prius, since it hit the market in 2000, according to the company, which pegs total hybrid sales at just over nine hundred thousand.

Officials with the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind are quick to point out that they're not advocating a return to gas guzzlers. They'd just like the fuel-efficient hybrids to make some noise. NFB President Marc Maurer said he received an email from an environmentalist who suggested that the members of his group should be the first to drown when sea levels rise from global warming. "I don't want to pick that way of going, but I don't want to get run over by a quiet car either," Maurer said.

The NFB--the leading advocacy group for 1.3 million legally blind people in the United States--made pleas to the auto industry and to federal and state agencies, with little concrete success so far. On Wednesday the president of the NFB's Maryland chapter planned to present written testimony asking for a minimum sound standard for hybrids to be included in the state's emissions regulations. But those regulations are crafted by the Maryland Department of the Environment, which has no oversight of auto safety, said Robert Ballinger, a spokesman for the department. He said the department would work with the NFB to press the issue with auto manufacturers and federal transportation officials.

Manufacturers are aware of the problem but have made no pledges yet. Toyota is studying the issue internally, said Bill Kwong, a spokesman for Toyota Motor Sales USA. "One of the many benefits of the Prius, besides excellent fuel economy and low emissions, is quiet performance. Not only does it not pollute the air, it doesn't create noise pollution," Kwong said. "We are studying the issue and trying to find that delicate balance."

The Association of International Auto Manufacturers, Inc., a trade group, is also studying the problem, along with a committee established by the Society of Automotive Engineers. The groups are considering "the possibility of setting a minimum noise level standard for hybrid vehicles," said Mike Camissa, the safety director for the manufacturers' association. Officials with two separate arms of the U.S. Department of Transportation--the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration--said they are aware of the problem but have not studied it.

While Stein said she would prefer that hybrids sound similar to conventional engines, other blind people said they'd be fine with any sound that was inoffensive but easy to detect. Both sides agree that it wouldn't be prohibitively expensive to outfit cars with an adequate noisemaking device. "It's cheaper than an air bag or other safety devices," Kwong said. "Any kind of audio device is going to be relatively inexpensive."

The blind, however, will have to win over some hybrid owners as well as advocates for reduced noise pollution. Some think that making hybrids louder won't solve anything. "To further expose millions of people to excessive noise pollution by making vehicles artificially loud is neither logical nor practical nor in the public interest," said Richard Tur, founder of NoiseOFF, a group that raises awareness of noise pollution. Others believe that distracted pedestrians are at greater risk than blind people from quiet cars.

"The only way to function driving any car, forgetting the fact that it's a Prius, is to just be very careful and see who's around you," said George Margolin of Newport Beach, California, who runs a club for Prius owners with his wife. "We have to be as careful as anyone else and perhaps even more so."

Blind people are not the only ones who've had close calls. Linda Murphy, fifty-seven, a personal administrative assistant from San Marcos, California, has 20/20 vision when she wears her glasses, but she's almost been hit twice by hybrids. "I'm walking right in back of it and it's moving and I didn't realize it until it nearly touched me," Murphy said, describing the first of her scares. "I never realized how dependent I was on my ears until I almost got hit."

Sharon Maneki reads Michael Gosse’s testimony.At the beginning of the hearing Shari T. Wilson, Maryland’s secretary of the environment, offered a sympathetic and conciliatory statement in general support of the NFB’s identified concerns about hybrid vehicles. Secretary Wilson offered to work with the Maryland affiliate to convey our concerns to hybrid car manufacturers. While experienced Federationists remained skeptical about promises of continued dialogue with traditionally nonresponsive hybrid vehicle manufacturers, it was good to know that our message was hitting home with somebody in a position of authority. The public and political pressure applied in this instance clearly attracted Secretary Wilson’s attention, and to her credit she remained throughout the hearing to listen to the concerns of all twenty-six Federationists who offered testimony condemning the absence of blindness-specific considerations in relation to the manufacture of quiet hybrid vehicles.

Sharon Maneki, legislative chairperson for the Maryland affiliate, was the first person to address the hearing panel. In addition to delivering the written remarks prepared by the affiliate and submitted under the name of Michael Gosse, NFB of Maryland president, she supplemented these comments with technical information on the ability of blind people to interact with quiet hybrid vehicles provided by Dr. Lawrence Rosenblum, professor of perceptual psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Dr. Rosenblum has conducted substantial research on quiet cars and the blind, and his observations offer a compelling reason to take heed of our adopted policy positions on this issue. Following is the prepared text of the testimony submitted to the MDE from the NFB of Maryland:

Ms. Rabin:

My name is Dr. Michael Gosse, and I am the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland. My address is 603 South Milton Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland 21224, and my telephone number is (410) 558-0616.

The National Federation of the Blind of Maryland, one of the fifty-two nationwide affiliates of the National Federation of the Blind and the largest organization of blind Marylanders, is pleased to have the opportunity to comment on the proposed regulations to implement the Low Emissions Vehicle Program mandated by the Maryland Clean Cars Act of 2007. The National Federation of the Blind of Maryland does not oppose the Low Emissions Vehicle Program or its objectives. But we did call to the attention of the General Assembly an unintended consequence of new low-emissions vehicles: they are silent. At present the most popular low-emissions vehicles are gas-electric hybrid cars. When hybrids run on battery power, they make no sound detectable to the human ear. Hybrids are dangerous enough, but it can be assumed that in the coming years even stealthier low emissions vehicles, which may not use gasoline engines at all, will come on the market. Unless steps are taken now to reverse the trend toward vehicles that are silent when operating on the roadways of our state and nation, the blind will lose the only source of information we have about the flow of traffic, resulting in injury and death to some of us and difficulty in traveling safely to work, to school, and to church for many more. Cyclists, runners, walkers, and small children are also rendered vulnerable by the inability to hear the approach of these vehicles.

The National Federation of the Blind has been concerned about the proliferation of silent vehicles since 2003. To address our concerns, we created a Committee on Automobile and Pedestrian Safety. This committee conducted numerous tests with blind volunteers to ascertain if there was any way a blind person can reliably detect these vehicles. The tests, however, repeatedly showed that blind people cannot hear these vehicles until they are far too close. Had any of the test subjects actually attempted to cross the streets or parking lots we employed in the test when they thought it would be safe to do so, they would have been crushed and killed by a Toyota Prius or Honda Civic.

The Committee on Automobile and Pedestrian Safety of the National Federation of the Blind held a conference to determine the best solution to this problem and carefully considered whether there were viable solutions that did not require a continuous sound generated by the vehicle itself. Ultimately, however, the committee concluded that alternate solutions were either too technologically complex (and expensive), difficult to implement, or unreliable to ensure pedestrian safety. Members of the Committee on Automobile and Pedestrian Safety and other officials of the National Federation of the Blind attempted to speak with the manufacturers of these vehicles in hopes of reaching a solution, but the blind of America were rebuffed at every turn. Most of the car companies have simply ignored us; Honda initially agreed to meet with us but canceled the meeting in response to pressure from the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers.

When the Maryland Clean Cars Act was proposed, the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland saw an opportunity for our concerns to be enshrined in the laws and regulations propagated by a state and at least to protect blind Marylanders while the National Federation of the Blind continued to work on the issue at the national level. As I said, it had become clear from our conversations with manufacturers that no action was likely to be taken in the absence of government regulation, so the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland petitioned the General Assembly for a remedy. Pursuant to our request, the Maryland Clean Cars Act specifically required this department to “consider the needs of individuals with visual impairments” when propagating regulations pursuant to the act. This was a step in the right direction, and we eagerly awaited this department’s draft regulations. The draft regulation being considered today, however, contains no mention of our concerns. In fact, the draft states that the only impact of these regulations on persons with disabilities is positive. But while this may be true of persons with respiratory problems, it is certainly not true of the blind, as long as these vehicles continue to operate soundlessly. The Maryland Department of the Environment must comply with the specific direction of the Maryland General Assembly and address the problem of silent vehicles immediately.

We who are blind use the sounds of passing vehicles in a number of ways to help us travel safely, efficiently, and independently in our communities. By listening to cars as they move or idle, we determine whether lights have turned red or green and set our direction as we cross streets with rounded curbs. Sound from traffic tells us how many vehicles are near us and how fast they are moving; whether they are accelerating or decelerating; and whether they are traveling toward, away from, or parallel to us. With all of this information we can accurately determine when it is safe for us to proceed and when we should stop and wait. The sound of vehicles is helpful even when we are walking in relatively quiet residential areas where the streets are not busy, since the sound of a car’s engine alerts us when a driver is leaving the driveway of a home or turning into or out of a side street or parking lot.

Based on the experiences of individual blind people and tests we have conducted at our national conventions, the National Federation of the Blind has proven that hybrid cars (particularly the Toyota Prius, which is currently the most popular of this new family of vehicles) are not audibly detectable when their combustion engines are turned off. This makes these vehicles, as currently designed, dangerous not only to the blind, but to cyclists, runners, walkers, and children. If these vehicles proliferate (as Maryland law now requires) and no action is taken to address the risks to life and limb created by their soundlessness, blind people will not only find our lives routinely threatened but also our ability to travel independently severely curtailed. The problem will only grow more acute when automobile manufacturers produce vehicles that eliminate the use of combustion engines entirely.

The best way to guarantee the safety of the blind and others is for these vehicles to produce sound at all times when they are running. We are not demanding increased noise pollution; we simply demand that vehicles produce enough sound to warn of their approach in time for us to make intelligent judgments as to whether we should proceed, or, if necessary, to take evasive action. Toward that end the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland requests that this department immediately adopt the following regulatory language:

Motor vehicles must be designed to maintain customary internal combustion engine acoustical characteristics. Accordingly, vehicles shall emit an omni-directional sound with similar spectral characteristics to those of a modern internal combustion engine.

In the event that this sound is artificially generated, the sound and pitch should exhibit distinct variations to indicate whether the vehicle is idling, traveling at a constant speed, or accelerating, to wit:

Idling vehicles shall produce a continuous sound not less than 45 dBa as measured from 10 feet.

Moving vehicles shall produce a continuous sound not less than 53 dBa as measured from 20 feet when traveling less than 10 miles per hour, not less than 60 dBa measured at 60 feet when traveling between 10 and 30 miles per hour, and not less than 65 dBa measured at 60 feet when traveling over 30 miles per hour.

Accelerating vehicles must conform to the requirements above at the relevant speeds, plus 3 dBa. For these purposes dBa shall mean A-weighted sound level in decibels, as measured by a general purpose sound level meter complying with the provisions of the American National Standard Institute, "Specifications for Sound Level Meter (ANSI SIR 19711)," properly calibrated, and operated on the "A" weighting network.

The specifications outlined in this regulatory language have no effect on the environmental benefits of gas-electric hybrids or any other low emissions vehicle. The language does not require that cars use internal combustion engines, only that they be made to sound as if they are using them. It does not require that cars become louder, but only that they emit the sounds to which the blind, and all other members of the public, are accustomed. In other words, the language we have proposed simply requires cars to sound like cars.

Opponents of this proposed regulation will no doubt assert that no deaths or injuries are directly attributable to silent automobiles. I submit to the department that it is simply too early to know whether any vehicle-on-pedestrian accidents have been caused by silent vehicles, since the technology is relatively new and accident reports do not usually denote whether the vehicle involved was operating with or without a combustion engine. Anecdotally we know of blind people who have experienced very close calls because of these vehicles, and those of us who have attempted to listen for them in tests conducted by the National Federation of the Blind have, to our own shock, been completely unsuccessful. It is likely that injuries or deaths have already occurred. Even if the pedestrian population has been lucky so far, I hope and pray that this department, as well as other regulatory agencies that will consider this issue in the coming months and years will decide that a proactive response is preferable to waiting for the inevitable tragedy involving a blind person, a cyclist, or a child to shock this state and the nation.

In conclusion, the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland urges the Maryland Department of the Environment to follow the directive of the Maryland General Assembly and to adopt the regulatory language we have proposed in this statement. I thank you again for the opportunity to come before you and speak to this critically important issue.

Renee WestRenee West, editor of the Braille Spectator, the publication of the NFB of Maryland and a member of the board of the Greater Baltimore Chapter of the NFB of Maryland, also offered comments for agency consideration. Her remarks were representative of the vast majority of the statements delivered on this occasion, and they thoughtfully reflect and elaborate on many aspects of the hybrid-vehicles-policy discussion. The complete text of her testimony follows:

My name is Renee West, and I am a member of the National Federation of the Blind. My address is 3924 Yolando Road, and my phone number is (410) 243-1818. I very much appreciate the opportunity to speak today on behalf of my organization, and I thank you for your time.

As a blind person I hold my independence in great esteem. Having been taught to use a long white cane and listen to the sounds of traffic as my guide, I have been able to traverse the globe, confident in my ability to travel safely. My confidence is waning, however, as an increased number of low-emission vehicles fill the streets. Many other blind people are likewise afraid of the dangers these quiet cars pose to our safety, so we as a group have taken to the streets to alert governmental bodies and the public at large of our alarm at these risks. I ask that in determining regulations to implement the Low-Emissions Program mandated by the Maryland Clean Cars Act of 2007 you give consideration to our deeply felt concern about this issue and act in a manner in accordance not only with our request but also with the directive of the Maryland General Assembly.

Blind people seek freedom unencumbered by fear. The freedom to travel to and from work and play, to visit friends and attend our houses of worship is enjoyed and valued by most ordinary blind citizens as a natural part of our lives. Because we have learned the alternative skills of blindness, we are unafraid of our environment; we rely upon these tools to allow us independence in our travels and expect them to serve us well. We are not afraid to go down stairs because we use our canes to feel the ground as we walk, and we expect that our canes will alert us to the presence of stairs. We are not afraid to cross the street because we have become attuned to the sounds cars make in their traffic patterns and expect that we will be alerted to the presence of a car in or near our path by the sounds it makes. If an approaching car is operating on battery power, however, we are utterly unable to hear its advance and are most likely to begin to walk across the street or intersection believing it is clear. This lack of audible cues to the presence of traffic leaves us without any means by which we can use our skills and safely cross the street, and this inability to expect safe crossing effectively shackles our freedom. We are not free when we fear for our lives and the lives of those for whom we are responsible in our travels. We are not free to become the first-class citizens we know we can be, when factors in our environment put us in jeopardy, so we decide it’s best just to stay at home.

As we become more aware as a citizenry of the benefits of environmentally responsible forms of energy for automobiles, an increased number of cars without the benefit of audible signals will be in use. This increase in quiet cars will serve to further compromise our safety and increase our fear. For a blind person, traveling to work in the morning would be dangerous and terrifying. Walking your small child to visit a friend would be unthinkable. The Maryland Department of the Environment has the authority and the obligation to demand vehicles in our state possess the characteristics we need to ensure that we maintain our independence and our current level of safety.

The Committee on Automobile and Pedestrian Safety of the National Federation of the Blind has determined that low-emission vehicles, which create sounds like cars with a traditional combustion engine, are the best means by which blind people can maintain our current level of freedom. It is important that regulatory language stipulate that the sound emitted by the automobile be akin to the sounds cars currently make when in motion and idling, uniform across make and model, and, critically, that it be intrinsic to the car and not turned on or off by the operator. Drivers distracted by cell phones and other vehicles often don’t signal their intent to turn; often drivers ignore traffic lights and stop signs as well. It would be unwise to ask drivers of quiet cars to bear responsibility for making a sound at a crossing, given such a pattern of unreliability. Neither can we assume the creation of consistent sound is unnecessary, that drivers will simply stop at the sight of a pedestrian, given that drivers of cars with a traditional fuel source hit pedestrians with unfortunate regularity. Some may think that blind people can rely upon audible traffic signals for safe crossing, so the sound of traffic is superfluous in light of these devices. Such audible crossing signals are relatively rare and costly to implement, and the usefulness of such signals is debatable. For blind people the most effective means by which we can safely cross streets or parking lots is listening to the sound of the cars around us.

It is worth noting that the Maryland General Assembly stated in the law that regulations addressing our concerns about the potential risk of quiet cars are of benefit to all Maryland citizens. Most means by which the environment has been altered to assist the disabled have in fact been of use to the general populace. Noises signaling the approach of an elevator or the end of a moving sidewalk alert distracted people to these important factors. Singular taps in sinks originally designed for people with impaired motor skills assist mothers holding babies in one arm. Moms also benefit from wheelchair curb cuts when pushing strollers. In like manner the sound a car makes helps alert everyone to a possible danger. While we of course should be fully engaged when crossing streets, people are often distracted, so the sound of an oncoming vehicle serves as a necessary additional cue when they don’t see the car. Quiet cars not only jeopardize blind individuals, who rely on car sounds as our sole cue for safe crossing, but are highly detrimental to all who use sound as one cue among many.

As people we appreciate the goals expressed in the Maryland Clean Cars Act. As blind people we urge the Maryland Department of the Environment to help make certain that creating laws that benefit Maryland doesn’t harm our ability to enjoy all that our state has to offer. The language we propose for inclusion in the Low-Emissions Vehicle Program regulations would serve to ensure that blind people could rely upon our skills to travel and thus to restore our freedom of movement. It would indeed be a shame to curtail the progress of blind people who have only just begun to advance.

Finally, the brief but powerful comments of Maya Redfearn, a recently blinded woman and new member of the NFB of Maryland, served to capture succinctly the overall spirit of the day’s message. She said in part:

Maya Redfearn“We’ve all heard of the old phrase, stop, look, and listen. Look has been taken from me. Listen may be taken from me. If this happens, all I’ll have left to do is stop. And I don’t want to stop. I want to keep on going, keep on traveling, keep on living.”

The protest and hearing were finished by just after noon, and Federationists left the MDE offices contented in the knowledge that they had done everything possible to raise awareness about the dangers of quiet hybrid vehicles. The complementary remarks, ranging from polished to plain, delivered by the twenty-six speakers, identified the kernel of our concern and reflected the diversity of the Federation’s membership. The humanity of the Federation and the earnestness with which those present were prepared to advocate on this topic reflected creditably on our movement.

Now NFB of Maryland leaders and members must wait to see what impact their efforts will have on the MDE. To be sure, this state initiative, with implications for the entire nation, must be resolved to our ultimate satisfaction, either as a direct result of this campaign or through continued advocacy on this topic. The collective voice of the blind of Maryland and America on the issue of quiet vehicles must ultimately prevail. Our cause is just. Our message is simple. We want cars that sound like cars.

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