Braille Monitor                                                    March 2008

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Remarks about the Problems Caused by Quiet Cars

by Gary Wunder

Gary WunderFrom the Editor: Gary Wunder is the secretary of the National Federation of the Blind and vice chair of the NFB’s Committee for Automobile and Pedestrian Safety. On January 24, 2008, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he addressed a technical subgroup of the World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations–Working Party 29 of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. The entire Working Party 29 will meet this month in Geneva, Switzerland. This is what he said:

On behalf of the National Federation of the Blind, our nation’s oldest and largest organization of blind people, I want to thank you for this opportunity to address an issue critical to blind pedestrians. Who are blind people? The totally blind, who like me see nothing at all; people who see at twenty feet what you see with the same clarity at two hundred; and people who may see well straight ahead but have little or no peripheral vision. The National Federation of the Blind is composed of volunteer members who have any of these visual acuities, and we welcome and have sighted members who share in making lives better for blind people.

A cornerstone of our philosophy is that we ask from society only what we need, take as much responsibility for ourselves as we can, and learn through training how to do as blind people what others do with sight. How do blind people travel? Canes or dogs tell us about obstacles, steps, curbs, drop-offs, and open manholes. For navigating traffic, we use our ears; we know audibly whether vehicles are stationary or moving, their direction and speed, and whether they are speeding up or slowing down. Using the movement of parallel and perpendicular traffic, we can determine the color of traffic lights and when it is safe for us to cross.

All of these cues rely on a minimal level of sound--not noise but usable audible information. If the sound is too loud, the noise of other vehicles is masked; if too low, vehicles become invisible to us. Most of the sound we depend on comes from vehicles moving at less than twenty MPH, and at this speed it is very likely most hybrid vehicles will be in the electric or silent mode.

For pedestrians, and particularly blind pedestrians, this is a life and death issue, physically and spiritually. No hype or spin is intended in this bold statement. If good blind travelers can't get needed information from our ears, then there are no good blind travelers. The physical threat is that we end up on the wrong side of a car bumper. The spiritual threat is that reasonable people will consider it no longer safe to travel independently, so, instead of becoming working, contributing members in the world, we will become prisoners without the need of an electronic shackle.

Mobility is necessary for almost everything we do: go to school or work, go on a walk to relieve stress, enjoy the spring, take our children to the park, or go to visit their school. What we need, and what all pedestrians need, is for vehicles to have some level of audibility. The mantra that cars must be made quieter must at some point give way to a new paradigm--that cars must be quiet, but be sufficiently audible that pedestrians are warned of their presence. Consider from a visual perspective how attractive the world would be if vehicles were invisible, then consider the catastrophe if this were achievable.

We don't have our hearts set on one acceptable sound, but we do suggest that current automobiles make a noise which is recognizable by all pedestrians. No car has to sound like a souped up fifty-five Chevy with pipes to help the blind, but neither should it sound as quiet as a coasting bicycle. In all phases of operation, including times when the vehicles are at a full stop, vehicles should be required to emit an omni-directional sound with similar spectral characteristics to those of a modern internal combustion engine. The sound should vary in a way that indicates whether the vehicle is idling, maintaining a constant speed, accelerating, or decelerating.

It is important that we decide on one standard sound applied across the board. We do not want cars whose sounds vary as much as the ringers one can buy for a cell phone. A vehicle needs to sound like a vehicle, and that sound needs to communicate the presence of an object which outweighs a pedestrian by at least twenty to one.

Some have argued that pedestrians, and especially blind pedestrians, should carry a device to indicate the presence of a hybrid or electric vehicle and tell us when it is safe to cross the street. At some time in the future this may be a viable option, but currently it is as impractical as you surrendering the driving of your car to a computer. When that day comes, I'll join you in the driver's seat, but until then we must both rely on the senses we have and on the best computer we know for making complicated life-saving decisions--the computer which sits atop our shoulders.

The National Federation of the Blind shares the goal of keeping cars affordable, living in a cleaner environment, reducing noise pollution, curbing our use of oil, and reducing the pollution that is generated by automobiles and other vehicles. What we are asking is readily achievable both technologically and economically. It is the right thing to do, not only for blind people, but for all who would travel safely on foot, be they young children on their way to school, senior citizens on their way to the store, or people like you and me on our way to a meeting to decide how to ensure future safe travel for all pedestrians.

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