Braille Monitor                                                    March 2008

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Enhancing Pedestrian Safety:
Ensuring the Blind Can Continue to Travel Safely And Independently

Purpose: To require gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles and other vehicles using silent power sources to emit a minimum level of sound which can alert blind people and other pedestrians to their presence.

Background:
Until recently independent travel for the blind has been a relatively simple matter, once a blind person has been trained in travel techniques and has learned to use a white cane or to travel with a guide dog. Blind people listen to the sounds of automobile engines to determine the direction, speed, and pattern of traffic. Sounds from traffic tell blind pedestrians how many vehicles are near them and how fast they are moving; whether the vehicles are accelerating or decelerating; and whether the vehicles are traveling toward, away from, or parallel to them. With all of this information, blind people can accurately determine when it is safe to proceed into an intersection or across a driveway or parking lot. The information obtained from listening to traffic sounds allows blind people to travel with complete confidence and without assistance. Over the past few years, however, vehicles that are completely silent in certain modes of operation have come on the market, and more such vehicles are expected to be produced in the near future. These vehicles are designed to produce lower emissions in order to protect the environment from harmful pollutants, but the vehicles do not need to be silent in order to achieve the intended positive environmental effects. Currently the most popular of these vehicles are gasoline-electric hybrids (which alternate between running on a gasoline engine and on battery power), although a few electric automobiles are already on America’s roads and new all-electric models are planned. The blind of America do not oppose the proliferation of vehicles intended to reduce damage to the environment, but these vehicles must meet a minimum sound standard for safety.

Need for Congressional Action: The silence of gasoline-electric hybrid cars poses an immediate and growing threat to the safety of blind and other pedestrians and jeopardizes the ability of blind people to travel independently. In order to address this threat, these vehicles must emit a sound detectable by the human ear. Not only will such a sound allow the blind to continue to travel in safety, but it will also protect cyclists, runners, other pedestrians, and small children, all of whom rely on the sounds of traffic to varying degrees.

The National Federation of the Blind has been concerned about the proliferation of silent vehicles for several years. Thus far, however, our concerns have not been heeded. Automobile manufacturers view the silence of their vehicles as a marketing advantage, and federal regulators have indicated that, in the absence of statistics on injuries or deaths caused by hybrid vehicles, nothing can be done. No one disputes that pedestrians cannot hear these vehicles (even their manufacturers concede this fact), and we believe it is preferable that the problem be addressed before the inevitable avalanche of tragedies involving blind people, cyclists, and children shocks the nation.

Proposed Legislation: Legislation requiring the U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to establish and promulgate a national standard for a minimum sound to be emitted by all new automobiles sold in the United States, based on appropriate scientific research and consultation with blind Americans and other affected groups, is urgently needed. This national minimum sound standard should have the following characteristics:

The standard need not prescribe the apparatus, technology, or method to be used by vehicle manufacturers to achieve the required minimum sound level. This approach will encourage manufacturers to use innovative and cost-effective techniques to achieve the minimum sound standard.

The addition of components that will emit a minimum sound discernible to blind people and other pedestrians will not adversely affect the environmental benefits of gasoline-electric hybrids and other automobiles running on alternate power sources, nor need the sound be loud enough to contribute to noise pollution. Automobiles that operate in complete silence, however, endanger the safety of everyone; silent operation should be seen as a design flaw similar to the lack of seat belts or air bags.
Requested Action: Please support blind Americans by sponsoring or cosponsoring legislation authorizing the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish and promulgate regulations specifying a minimum sound standard for all new automobiles sold in the United States.

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