by Deborah Kent Stein
From the Editor: The name Debbie Kent Stein is associated with many things. She is a professional writer, a leader in the NFB of Illinois, a winner of the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award, and the person most closely linked with the recognition of the dangers posed by quiet cars. Beginning with a firsthand experience in 2003 that convinced her that the blind were up against a change in the world that could threaten our independent mobility and even pose a deadly threat to us, she has been one of our most articulate spokespersons. Her work as chair of the committee for automobile and pedestrian safety has required that she take on many roles. She has had to be a prophet in the wilderness, shouting out a message that the diverse audiences she has had to address were reluctant to hear, let alone embrace. Blind people did not want to be told that some cars were too quiet to hear. Being bothered by disgruntled blind people was the last thing car companies wanted as they created the next generation of vehicles, moving from traditional internal-combustion engines to something that could make better use of fuel, create less pollution, and meet the demand for an ever-quieter car. Environmental groups bristled at the notion that anyone could object to a generation of automobiles that would attempt to address many of their concerns. Debbie had to be a conference organizer, a negotiator, and a builder of bridges between organizations that competed for sales, membership, and governmental influence. But for all of the high-level work her job entailed, the most impressive work required of Debbie was managing the follow-up and making sure that this uncomfortable and difficult issue didn't get placed on the back burner. She knew the problem would not go away, and she let everyone involved know, in her courteous but firm way, that she wasn't going away either. Here is what Debbie has to say about the journey of the blind to ensure safe passage on the streets of the smallest town or largest city.
On the afternoon of January 4, 2011, a flurry of anxious emails tumbled into my inbox. Had I heard any news? Was I sure the bill had reached the president's office? How much time was left for him to make his decision? Suppose the unthinkable happened—suppose he refused to sign, or simply lost the bill amid his other priorities?
At last, when it was nearly midnight, I received a triumphant message from Jesse Hartle in the NFB's Office of Governmental Affairs. Just forty-five minutes before, President Barack Obama had signed S. 841, the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act. The bill that the Federation had sponsored and nurtured for the past three years was now the law of the land.
The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, generally known to Federationists as the Quiet Cars Bill, grew out of our realization that hybrid vehicles operate almost silently when in electric mode. As blind people we travel safely and independently by listening to the sounds of traffic. With nearly silent "stealth vehicles" on the road in greater numbers every year, our safety and independence were in jeopardy.
The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act will not solve the problem overnight. It grants the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) thirty-six months to determine a level of sound that will give blind pedestrians, and pedestrians in general, ample warning of the approach of a hybrid or electric vehicle and to establish regulations for the automobile manufacturing industry. The manufacturers will then have three years to achieve full compliance with NHTSA's regulations. It will be the year 2017 before all new hybrid and electric cars sold in the U.S. meet the safety standard based on audibility. (There is no requirement that existing vehicles be retrofitted.) Nevertheless, there is wisdom in proceeding with care. Once rules are in place, we will be living with them for a long time. We must be sure that the solution truly meets our needs.
The passage of S. 841 resulted from the united efforts of Federationists across the country. It is a shining example of what we can accomplish when we work together. Like a snowball, our effort grew and amplified until it gained an unstoppable momentum. And, like a snowball, it started out feeble and small. As I look back on the events that led up to that night, I remember the way it all began and the long journey that finally brought us to the signing of our bill on January 4, the 202nd birthday of Louis Braille.
About thirty years ago I read that developers had built the first all-electric vehicles, cars that would operate cleanly and would free us from our dependence on fossil fuels. The news sounded wonderful to me until I heard that the new electric cars would be utterly silent. I recall talking with a few blind friends about the danger that such cars would pose for us. They assured me that we had no need for concern. The manufacturers wouldn't be so foolish as to put silent cars on the road. They would certainly add a warning sound of some kind so that we could hear the cars coming.
Over the decades that followed, I didn't think much more about silent cars. Then, on a November morning in 2003, a family friend dropped by to visit. He parked his new Toyota Prius in front of the house. "It's completely silent when it's running on its battery," he explained. "No kidding—you can't hear a thing."
I had great confidence in my power to listen and discern. I couldn't imagine a car so quiet that I would fail to hear it. I decided to put it to the test. I have told this story many times, and it has often been repeated by others. In the history of the Quiet Cars Bill it has almost taken on the status of legend. I stood at the curb and listened as our friend climbed into the driver's seat and slammed the door. I waited to hear the Prius hum into life and move forward. I heard the chatter of sparrows; the distant roar of a leaf-blower; and, after a minute or two, the opening of the car door.
"When are you going to start?" I asked.
"I did start," our friend answered. "I drove down to the end of the block, and then I backed past you and drove up in front of you again." I felt a cold sense of dread. I thought, we've got a real problem.
Clearly my friends and I were naïve years ago when we decided it was unthinkable that silent vehicles would someday glide down our streets. The auto industry had not considered our needs and our safety. The unthinkable was now a reality. My mind leaped ahead to a world where blind people would be prisoners in their homes, unable to travel to school, to work, or to the store without a sighted escort. I remembered all the days when I walked my daughter back and forth to school and ached for the blind parents who someday might not dare to go out on the streets alone with their children. I thought of the tireless work we have done in the Federation to ensure that future generations of blind people can live active, independent lives as respected members of the community. I realized how swiftly our efforts might be undone by this new technological development.
After a few days of fruitless worry, I called Gary Wunder, a longtime friend and a member of the NFB's national board. Gary had not yet encountered a hybrid car, but he listened carefully and promised to bring my concerns before the board at its next meeting. Before the meeting he approached President Marc Maurer, who arranged to have a Prius on hand so that the board members could listen for themselves and draw their own conclusions.
As Gary explained to me later, a number of the board members were highly skeptical. They were convinced that they would be able to hear the sound of tires on pavement and the rush of air against the windshield, even if the engine of a hybrid was operating silently in battery mode. Not all of the board members chose to go outside and listen to the Prius as a staff member drove it past the National Center in Baltimore. However, those who took part in the demonstration were startled to discover what I had found weeks before. When the hybrid was moving at slow speeds, its tires were soundless, and there was no wind rush. With no sound from the engine, the vehicle crept along in silence. When crossing a driveway or side street, it would be easy for a blind person to step unaware straight into the path of an oncoming vehicle.
I was not the first Federationist to express concern about silently operating cars. At the NFB convention of 2003, Noel Nightingale had drafted a quiet cars resolution. Resolution 03-05, passed unanimously, stated "that the safe and free travel of blind pedestrians and all pedestrians may be significantly and increasingly impaired by quiet vehicles."
Early in 2004 Dr. Maurer appointed me to chair a new committee. The committee on automobile and pedestrian safety (CAPS) was established specifically to investigate the matter of quiet cars and come up with recommendations. "I don't have any idea what should be done," Dr. Maurer told me, "but I charge your committee with figuring that out for us." I had no idea where to begin, so I started by thinking about the composition of the committee itself. I decided that we would need people with a foundation in technology and engineering. We would need attorneys to think about the legal aspects of dealing with a potential safety hazard. We should have orientation and mobility instructors, people with a firm understanding of independent travel. Finally, we should have people with media experience. To get anything done, we would have to spread the word to the public.
A group of dedicated Federationists agreed to serve as CAPS members, and we began a series of exchanges using email and conference calls. For most of us the quiet-car issue posed a wrenching conflict. All our lives we had believed and insisted that as blind people we could live in the world as we found it. We had shunned the idea of asking society to adapt the environment to meet our needs. We had found ways to use the information that the existing environment provides and to go on about our business. Years ago, in the sixties and seventies, that philosophy served us very well. However, technology was transforming the world as we once knew it. Many of the changes brought us riches beyond our wildest imagining. Yet, in addition to downloadable books, newspapers over the telephone, and global positioning systems, technology had now delivered cars that we could not hear. None of us CAPS members could conceive of a way for us to identify the presence and movements of vehicles without sound. Blind people could eventually lose the freedom for which we had fought so long and hard. We had to call for the addition of some kind of sound cue in order to preserve our freedom of movement, even though that meant altering our previously-stated and unambiguous statements favoring training instead of environmental modifications.
As we pondered aloud at one of our meetings, Barbara Pierce recalled the old story of an intrepid band of mice. For a while, a new cat in the neighborhood made their lives a misery. Finally, while the cat was asleep, the brave little mice crept from their hole and fastened a bell around its neck. Like the mice in the story, we needed a sound to warn us of danger. We had to find a way to bell the hybrid cat.
In the course of our discussions, we grasped another crucial aspect of the issue. Blind people were not the only ones who would be affected by silently operating vehicles. Sighted pedestrians and cyclists also counted on their hearing to detect cars that were out of their line of sight. We were not dealing strictly with a blindness issue. We were perhaps the first to identify the problem, but quiet cars posed a threat to everyone.
For more than a year we reached out in every imaginable direction. We searched the labyrinthine Websites of corporations and government agencies for the names and addresses of officials. We sent fruitless emails and left phone messages that were never answered. We talked to friends of friends who worked for this company or that, and we followed up every lead and suggestion.
At one point I spoke with the head of a grassroots consumer protection organization that had a strong history of advocacy on safety issues. "How many people have been killed so far?" he asked bluntly. I said we didn't know, but we didn't want to wait for a body count. "You won't get anywhere until you have statistics," he told me. "You've got to have casualties before you can get anything done."
Even when we talked to our own friends and relations and to our colleagues in the blind community, we met with surprise and even skepticism. "Gee, it never occurred to me that quiet cars would be a problem," people would say. "The quieter the better, right? But now that I think about it, I guess you've got a point." Then they offered suggestions. Perhaps the fan belt could run when the car was operating in electric mode. Maybe they could put on a device that ticked as the wheels turned, like the old trick with the card in the bicycle spokes. Perhaps blind people could carry a device that would signal when it detected a hybrid car in the vicinity.
In June 2005 the Braille Monitor published an article about the quiet car question called "Stop, Look, and Listen." In it I urged readers to contact me if they had had a collision or frightening close call with a car they could not hear. At the 2005 NFB national convention, CAPS held an open meeting to expand the discussion. The room was packed, and opinions were heated. Some doomsayers foresaw a day when the law might forbid blind people from walking the streets alone because we posed a danger to ourselves and others. Some argued that drivers would simply learn to be more watchful and insisted that we had no need for alarm. Between these extremes we heard a broad range of ideas and concerns. We also heard the first chilling reports of canes being snapped by cars that never made a sound and blind pedestrians being rescued from unheard danger in the nick of time.
After the discussion portion of the meeting, everyone moved outdoors to a hotel parking lot for a small, uncontrolled experiment. After considerable persistence NFB staffer Jeff Witt had secured the use of a Toyota Prius for the afternoon. Participants in the test were asked to raise a hand when they heard the car drive past. Some twenty-five blind people waited on the curb, asking each other when Jeff's car was going to start moving. As we wondered and speculated, Jeff sat behind the wheel, circling the lot again and again.
Two months later I received a call from Kara Platoni, a reporter with a weekly paper in California called the East Bay Express. On September 21, 2005, the paper ran an article with the audience-grabbing title, "When Silence Equals Death." Platoni pointed out a painful contradiction—people purchased hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius in the belief that their choice would benefit the environment. By using electric power part of the time, they would save at the pump while cutting down on noise pollution and greenhouse gases. Now, it turned out, they would also create a hazard for blind pedestrians. The article clearly recognized the safety issue as an unforeseen consequence of the new hybrid technology.
A spate of articles appeared in the months that followed. The Toronto Globe and Mail, the San José Mercury, and several other papers reported on the unanticipated safety concerns created by silently operating vehicles. In every interview with the press, NFB spokespersons emphasized that the Federation did not oppose the manufacture of hybrid and electric vehicles, nor the development of energy-efficient fuels. We simply wanted the automotive industry to find a way to give pedestrians an audible warning of the approach of an otherwise inaudible car.
As the discussion widened, anti-noise advocates pitched in with their concerns. They reminded us that noise is a serious environmental problem. For decades the automotive industry worked hard to make cars quieter, they argued; adding noise to quietly operating vehicles would reverse all the gains that had been made. In response the NFB explained that we did not want the addition of a loud, irritating noise like the backup beep of an eighteen wheeler. Surely the manufacturers could add an inoffensive sound that would alert pedestrians to the presence and movements of quiet vehicles without disturbing the peace.
On November 4, 2006, the NFB sponsored "Quiet Cars and Pedestrian Safety: Problems and Perspectives," the world's first conference on the quiet car issue. The conference was an attempt to open an exchange of ideas among the widest possible group of stakeholders. Invitations went out to blindness organizations, cyclist and pedestrian groups, consumer safety organizations, alternative fuel proponents, electric vehicle advocates, and acoustical engineers. All of the major automotive manufacturers were invited, as well as representatives of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
Altogether forty people from thirteen states, representing fifteen organizations and academic institutions, attended the conference. The diversity of their backgrounds and perspectives was impressive. Among those in attendance were electric car advocates, representatives from pedestrian advocacy groups, acoustical engineers, and members of several blind consumer groups and blindness-related agencies. However, despite our best efforts, the automobile manufacturing community was notably absent.
The conference agenda included presenters from the blindness field, an expert in marketing and engineering, and representatives from the Federal Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (known as the Access Board). The meeting began with a direct experience of quiet cars. Approximately thirty participants nonvisually observed two hybrid vehicles, a Toyota Prius and a Honda Civic. Through hearing they tried to determine how detectable the vehicles were while in motion and while stopped at a street crossing. Participants were asked to respond upon hearing each of the vehicles approach, first at an intersection close to the conference site and later at an alley nearby. Observers generally heard the approach of the Civic (although at a dangerously close distance of about thirty feet) and missed the Prius altogether at the intersection. The Prius was somewhat more audible at the approach to the alley, but only at a range of about fifteen feet. When we convened indoors, everyone agreed that something had to be done. The looming questions were what and how?
The conference continued with presentations on engineering solutions and a panel from the Access Board. The attendees then broke into groups for brainstorming and returned to report on ideas. Several participants raised the suggestion that blind people might carry a device that would beep or vibrate to warn of the approach of a silent vehicle. Most of the blind people present felt strongly that this solution was unsatisfactory. Who would pay for such a device? How many people would be willing to carry it? Plenty of blind and visually impaired people don't even carry canes—could they be persuaded to use a device to warn them of inaudible vehicles? Besides, sighted pedestrians and cyclists were also at risk. Would every member of the population have to be outfitted with a warning gadget? Furthermore, a beep or vibration on the hand could never give us the rich range of information we gather by listening to the sounds emitted by standard combustion vehicles. Engine sounds tell us the location, speed, and direction of a car and indicate whether it is speeding up or slowing down. The sound of a car idling at an intersection alerts us to its presence and warns that it may start up at any moment. And we can collect all of this information about several vehicles at once. By listening we create a mental picture of the entire landscape around us.
After the idea of a handheld warning device was largely put to rest, other suggestions emerged. Surely a sound-emitting device could be designed for quiet cars that would give pedestrians and cyclists the information they gather from the sounds of standard combustion vehicles. Of course a multitude of questions arose: what sound should such a vehicle make? How loud should it be? When should the sound kick in and when should it stop?
Suddenly one of the acoustical engineers spoke up. He pointed out that laws have established a maximum sound level for cars and other vehicles. If a vehicle makes too much noise, it is in violation of the law. Why not establish a minimum sound standard at the other extreme? If a vehicle were so quiet that it fell below the minimum standard, then an artificial sound would have to be added. It was a revolutionary idea. We came away from the conference with a new sense of direction and focus.
In the fall of 2006 the NFB launched a Website that attempted to consolidate the existing information and thinking about the quiet cars issue. At <http:quietcars.nfb.org> visitors could find resolutions, articles, and conference notes. Webmaster Milton Ota poured untold hours into maintaining the site and keeping it up to date. For the first time concerned Federationists and members of the general public could gather information about the quiet car issue at a single location. When we began to think about the problem of silent vehicles, a Google search on "quiet cars" brought up pages about railroad coaches where noise is kept at a minimum so passengers can read or sleep. Now Google offered a list of articles and blog posts on silent vehicles, plus the Website sponsored by the NFB.
"Blind Pedestrians Say Quiet Hybrids Pose Safety Threat" announced the Wall Street Journal on February 13, 2007. The feature article by Raymund Flandez included quotations from several blind pedestrians. John Osborn, a guide dog user in California, reported a frightening close call. "Half an inch and it would have hit us," he said. "It wasn't making any noise." The Journal also quoted Sev MacPete, founder of the Toyota Prius Club of San Diego, who insisted that blind pedestrians are easy to spot because they usually have a special white cane with a red tip. "And, if you could say anything about hybrid drivers, they are more aware of their surroundings than other drivers," MacPete stated. (We often heard variations on this theme. Prius owners frequently claimed that people who drive hybrids are more careful and more sensitive than the average driver.) The article also referred to an interview with Toyota spokesperson Bill Kwong: "[Mr. Kwong] says he wasn't aware of the issue and believes that the responsibility lies with drivers and pedestrians to watch out for each other." Mr. Kwong did not suggest how blind pedestrians were supposed to do their share of the "watching out." It was hard to understand how he remained unaware of the issue after our repeated efforts to contact Toyota.
Recognition by the highly respected Wall Street Journal planted the quiet car issue on the media radar screen. Raymund Flandez's article was quickly followed by several more newspaper columns and a piece on National Public Radio's news program All Things Considered that included an interview with NFB board member Dr. Fred Schroeder. The topic even received air time in Jay Leno's monologue on The Tonight Show. Leno commented that blind people were concerned that they couldn't hear the approach of quiet hybrid cars. He suggested that the drivers should roll down their windows so that pedestrians would be warned by their holier-than-thou diatribes about going green.
Meanwhile, CAPS continued to search out contacts in government agencies, consumer organizations, and the automotive industry. At last, in April 2007, we made a major breakthrough. Gary Wunder and I were invited to meet with members of the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) outside Detroit. The SAE is a think tank that brings together engineers from throughout the automotive industry. Although the members do not represent their individual companies, the society pools their expertise and ingenuity to tackle selected challenges. CAPS had been working on the quiet car issue for three years. At last we had a channel of communication to some of the people involved in designing and making automobiles.
Gary and I went to Detroit prepared for a tough sell. The fact that we had been invited to discuss our concerns did not mean that anyone was willing to work with us. We planned and rehearsed our presentation, explaining how blind people travel and emphasizing the critical importance that sound played in our orientation and mobility. We kept our presentation brief to allow plenty of time for questions. Unless we could spark a discussion, the visit might be a futile exercise.
To our surprise and delight, we found ourselves seated around a table with a group of people who greeted us with sincere interest. Everyone listened carefully and asked questions. One piece of constructive criticism they offered was to change the language we used to describe what we wanted. "Do not tell us you want our cars to make noise," they said. "All of our professional lives we have been told to eliminate noise. It is as fundamental as motherhood and apple pie is to America. You do not want noise. You want usable audible feedback; this will better communicate your need and not automatically turn off people who will want to help you."
I realized at once that these guys (yes, nearly all of the SAE members I came to know were male) were highly creative. They loved to solve problems, and they were intrigued by unexpected challenges. The SAE took our issue seriously and made a firm commitment to explore it further. However, everyone warned us that the automotive industry moves slowly. If we wanted to bring about change, we would have to be very patient and determined.
To examine the quiet car issue in greater depth, the SAE established a subcommittee which later became a full committee. The Committee on Vehicular Sound for Pedestrians (VSP) began to meet monthly using WebEx and teleconference and occasionally face to face at SAE headquarters outside Detroit. Members of other organizations became involved, including some staff members from the NHTSA. The committee asked some key questions. Who was affected by quietly operating vehicles? Under what circumstances were these vehicles most likely to pose a hazard? What measurements could determine a safe level of sound?
It was evident that we needed to gather information about the population affected by quiet cars and the situations in which problems might occur. We set out to find pedestrians who had had accidents or close calls involving vehicles that operated with very little sound. An SAE task force designed a short survey to collect information about the pedestrian and driver involved and the circumstances of the incident.
In no way could we claim to be conducting a random survey. Some people responded to inquiries on NFB listservs, listservs for guide dog users, and other blindness channels. However, word of the NFB's work was starting to reach beyond the blind community. Occasionally a sighted pedestrian found our quiet cars Website and contacted us to report a disturbing incident. A sighted auto salesman described how he was hit and seriously injured by a silent all-electric car in the parking lot of a dealership. A sighted woman from California reported being hit by a Prius as it silently backed out of a driveway. The mother of an eight-year-old boy told us how her son was hit by a Prius while riding his bicycle. He was not hurt, but he was thrown onto the hood of the car and was badly shaken. "My son didn't stand a chance," the mother stated. "You absolutely could not hear that car coming." The interviews supported our conviction that not only are quietly operating vehicles a hazard for blind people, they pose a safety threat to all pedestrians and cyclists.
The involvement of the SAE helped to awaken the automotive industry to our concerns at last. Engineers and others from General Motors visited the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore for a day of discussion. Several Federationists even took the visitors from GM on a walk under sleepshades to help them understand more fully how blind people use sound to navigate safely. The NFB also made important contact with the American Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers (AAM), an organization to which most of the major auto companies belong. The tone of our meetings with the manufacturers was nearly always friendly, and all parties seemed eager to learn from one another. Instead of the adversarial exchange that might have developed, we found ourselves engaged in animated discussion, trying our best to work together. Our work also revealed that, despite initial protestations to the contrary, people in the know in the auto industry had some inkling of the problem caused by cars that made next-to-no noise. Some engineers admitted that in the development and testing of hybrid-electric cars, there were near misses as cars were moved from bay to bay. Auto workers themselves depended on sound for their safety, and soon everyone acknowledged that what we were discussing was the question, what should we do rather than the question, is it really necessary that we do anything?
Meanwhile, at the affiliate level Federationists went into action. They introduced bills about quiet cars in Maryland, Virginia, New York, Hawaii, and several other states. Some bills called for the addition of a warning sound to quietly operating vehicles; some prohibited state agencies from purchasing hybrid or other silently operating vehicles. Although no state passed a law requiring regulations, the proliferation of state bills was visible proof of our strength and determination.
The possibility of separate regulations in individual states filled the manufacturers with dismay. Automobiles and other vehicles are sold in every state of the Union and in each of the world's nations. If a variety of regulations was established from state to state or country to country, manufacturers would face a daunting set of problems. A car loud enough to operate legally in New York might be too quiet for the roads of California. An add-on sound approved by the legislature in Oregon might be voted down in West Virginia. Ideally any safety regulations regarding quiet cars should be national or even international in scope. Once the need for sound had been acknowledged, the fear from the industry was that someone would come up with a harebrained noise that would sour the public on vehicles making any sound at all, and the manufacturers would then be confronted with a public dead set against vehicles making any kind of usable sound.
Early in 2008 Carl Jacobsen, president of the NFB of New York, contacted his former orientation and mobility instructor, Edolphus (Ed) Towns, who had left the O&M field for a career in politics and now represented Carl’s New York district in the U.S. Congress. When Carl talked to Mr. Towns about quiet cars, the former travel instructor immediately understood our concern. He agreed to sponsor a bill about quiet vehicles in the House of Representatives.
Ed Towns is a Democrat, and we knew that a bipartisan bill would have the best chance of passage. We approached Florida Representative Cliff Stearns, a Republican, and asked him to be the bill's cosponsor. Stearns was hesitant at first and said he needed time to consider. Then one day he and his wife were nearly struck by a silently operating hybrid car in the parking lot of a supermarket. Stearns got the message. He cosponsored H.R. 5734, the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act. The bill was introduced on April 9, 2008, during the second session of the 110th Congress.
Like the version of the bill that became law in 2011, H.R. 5734 called upon NHTSA to conduct a study that would determine a solution to the safety issue posed by quiet hybrid and electric vehicles. The automotive industry then had a stipulated period to implement the solution. In the original bill each phase would last two years; these periods were extended to three years in the version that finally passed.
Across the country Federationists rallied around the campaign to win sponsors for our bill in Congress. Meanwhile, awareness of the hazards posed by quiet cars was spreading to the international community. On February 20, 2008, NFB President Marc Maurer delivered a speech called "The Dangers Posed by Silent Vehicles" to the Working Party on Noise (GRB) in Geneva, Switzerland. GRB reports to the World Forum on Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP-29), which is part of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. Dr. Maurer explained how blind people use traffic sounds to help them travel independently. After explaining how soundless vehicles pose a hazard to blind and sighted pedestrians, he concluded, "The promise of new automobile technology is a safer, cleaner, and healthier environment. It will be a sad irony if, through mere oversight, new cars become instruments that destroy life instead of protecting it. If these cars are not made safe for pedestrians, then their promise of a better life for us all will simply be a lie. But if you act now to ensure that vehicles continue to give adequate warning to all pedestrians, both blind and sighted, the objections of the blind to this new technology will have been met, and the world will be safer and better for all of us. Please join the National Federation of the Blind in ensuring that the streets of the world are places where those who drive and those who do not can move with safety and freedom."
On June 23, 2008, NHTSA hosted a day-long conference on the quiet car question. The conference brought together a variety of stakeholders, including spokespersons from NFB, ACB, NHTSA, the Access Board, and environmental organizations concerned with noise reduction. Researchers in the fields of orientation and mobility, acoustical engineering, and perceptual psychology presented their findings. There was uniform agreement that cars have become much quieter since the 1970's due to concerns about noise pollution. Anti-noise advocates argued that adding sound to quietly operating cars would reverse this positive trend. They contended that pedestrians would hear silent vehicles more easily if background noise were kept to a minimum. Participants viewed a video made by Dr. Lawrence Rosenblum of the University of California at Riverside. The video was based on a study of the response of subjects to the sounds of hybrid vs. standard combustion vehicles. In a laboratory subjects listened to approaching vehicles through highly sophisticated headsets. Dr. Rosenblum found that people were much slower to recognize the approach of a hybrid in battery mode than the approach of a vehicle using a combustion engine. The difference was as much as 75 percent. In some instances subjects did not recognize the simulated hybrid vehicle until half a second after it had passed.
Following the conference, NHTSA made a serious commitment to gather data about the safety hazards of hybrid and electric vehicles. NHTSA statisticians analyzed data on vehicular accidents involving pedestrians. Only twelve states reported whether a vehicle involved in an accident was a hybrid; California and New York, two of the states where hybrids are most popular, were not among them. Reported in 2009, NHTSA's findings showed that, when vehicles are moving at slow speeds, pedestrians are twice as likely to be involved in accidents with hybrids as they are with standard combustion vehicles. The figures were undeniable. They strongly supported our premise that silently operating vehicles are a threat not only to blind people but to all pedestrians.
Despite the positive press coverage, partnerships for automakers and their associations, and a recognition by the United States government that pedestrians were facing a real problem, there was a disturbing buzz on the Internet to the effect that all of this fuss about cars too quiet to hear was just one more symptom of an America with an out-of-touch press and a misdirected government which paid far too much attention to the whiners, gripers, and habitual complainers. How many blind people were there? Why in the world would they be on the streets anyway? Depending on one’s point of view, some of the posts candidly or caustically asked, how much is the life of a blind person worth compared with the cost of fixing what really isn't broken? Some of us who worked hard to make quiet cars emit usable sound did a double take. We had always assumed that on our side we had the goodwill of the American people who would do anything they reasonably could to let us take our place in the world. Now some were suggesting that our lives could be measured in dollars and that by their measurement blind people were worth less than a modification to keep the roads safe for pedestrians, especially ones who were blind.
By the end of 2008 H.R. 5734 had accrued eighty-eight cosponsors in Congress. It did not have enough supporters to be given a Congressional hearing or to be put to a vote. On January 28, 2009, soon after the 111th Congress was sworn in, the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act was introduced for a second time, again sponsored by Ed Towns and Cliff Stearns. The new bill was H.R. 734. By sheer coincidence the number of the new bill was very similar to the number of the earlier one. We hoped that the coincidence was a good omen.
Federationists worked with tireless determination for the passage of H.R. 734. They made phone calls, wrote letters, and paid face-to-face visits to their legislators, often sharing their personal experiences with soundless vehicles. Meanwhile, members of NFB's Governmental Affairs staff were busy on Capitol Hill. They were on site to meet with members of Congress and their staffers, building connections and helping the bill move forward. We were also strengthening our relationship with the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers (AAM).
As the number of House sponsors climbed, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) introduced a similar piece of legislation into the Senate as S. 841. A member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, as well as a former presidential candidate, Kerry was a powerful sponsor. Senate support mounted slowly, however, while the House bill continued to make dramatic progress. By the close of the first session of the 111th Congress, 171 members of the House had signed onto H.R. 734.
In an attempt to widen support for the bill, the NFB entered intense negotiations with the ACB, AAM, and the Alliance of International Automotive Manufacturers, or AIAM (now Global Automakers). On May 18 all four organizations agreed upon a revised version of the bill. With the support of the automotive manufacturers and both blindness consumer organizations, the bill had real impetus to move forward.
In the meantime a fast track bill concerned with auto safety was galloping through Congress. Inspired by allegations of accidents caused by jammed accelerators in vehicles made by Toyota, the Motor Vehicle Safety Bill of 2010 (H.R. 5381) encompassed a number of new safety regulations. It seemed almost certain to pass. If the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act were added as an amendment, then it, too, would become law. On May 26 the House Committee on Energy and Commerce voted to include H.R. 734 in the Motor Vehicle Safety Bill. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation voted to amend the revised bill language into S. 3302, the Senate's version of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010, on June 9.
The strategy seemed almost foolproof. In July Federationists went to the national convention in Dallas with high hopes. Passage of our bill seemed so certain that many Federationists turned their attention to other, more pressing concerns.
However, it was too soon for elation. Headlines announced the release of a new report about Toyota's acceleration problems. The report presented unequivocal evidence that 100 percent of the so-called accelerator jams resulted from "user error." In addition, the automotive industry strongly opposed several of the new measures called for in the bill, although it raised no objection to our amendment. The Motor Vehicle Safety Act swerved from the fast track to the slow lane and finally stalled altogether. It never came to a vote on either the House or the Senate floor. The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act was bound up with the bill's fate.
As the NFB worked to devise a fresh strategy, the nation elected another new Congress. Time was fast running out. Somehow, while the 111th Congress was still in session, we had to resuscitate our old House and Senate bills and bring them to a vote.
As the 111th Congress counted down its final days, NFB's Governmental Affairs team parried and maneuvered on Capitol Hill. With the AAM as a firm ally, the NFB worked to revive the old stand-alone bills, H.R. 734 and S. 841. The House refused to vote on H.R. 734 but promised to vote on the bill if it passed in the Senate. On December 9, 2010, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation sent S. 841 to the Senate floor for a vote of unanimous consent. The bill, which included the language agreed upon back in May, would pass only if all votes were in its favor. It passed unanimously in the Senate and moved on to the House.
The House had promised to bring the Senate bill to a vote, but time was frighteningly short. Ours was only one of dozens of bills awaiting their fate, and there was no guarantee that it would pass or even be considered. On December 15, 2010, Rep. John Barrow (D-GA) brought S. 841 to the House floor, and the House opened debate. The debate was brief; no one spoke in opposition to the bill. At the conclusion of debate, Congressman Barrow requested a roll call vote. However, it was late in the day. Further proceedings on the motion were postponed, and the motion was considered unfinished business.
The NFB team faced a long, sleepless night. Would our bill be brought to a vote before Congress adjourned, or would it be pushed aside and forgotten? Would we be forced to begin the process all over again with a brand-new Congress in 2011? Fortunately, our fears proved groundless. On December 16, 2010, the House voted on S. 841. The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act passed with 379 votes in favor and 30 opposed. Now all it needed was the president's signature to turn it into law.
That President Obama would veto the bill was highly unlikely. Nevertheless, my mind flew to worst-case scenarios. I imagined the bill lost and undelivered in a pile of folders. I pictured it buried beneath the mountain of mail waiting for attention in the president's outer office. Suppose the time ran out, I asked myself. Suppose... suppose....
When the news came at last on the night of January 4, my first feeling was a rush of relief. The reality came to me slowly. Even now I experience moments of amazement and disbelief. I remember that morning more than seven years ago when I had listened for a car that glided past me in silence. The idea that dawned in that moment on my front sidewalk has become a piece of history.
As blind people we contend with a host of barriers and concerns. There are inaccessible Websites and kiosks, and there are standardized tests with a visual bias. Setbacks and inequities are rooted in a long history of ignorance, prejudice, and discrimination. Furthermore, along with the rest of the world, we face more threats and dangers than we can count, from the fraying ozone layer to the constant menace of war. Before the enormousness of the world's ills I often feel overwhelmed and helpless. Our success in tackling the issue of quiet cars seems a featherweight in the balance.
Yet the passage of the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act stands as proof that we as individuals have the ability to make a difference. When we commit ourselves to a cause and win the commitment of others, we harness the power of collective action. When we stand together, we can change the world.