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Quiet Cars and Blind Pedestrians: Problems and Progress

by Barbara Pierce


Outside the hotel at the 2006 convention Federationists gathered to listen for the passage of a hybrid car. They were instructed to raise a hand when they heard the vehicle. In this group of about twenty-five people, one person heard the car coming.Editor�s Note: This is an issue that impacts every blind child�s present and future opportunities for independent travel. We urge you to get informed, and then get involved: look for continuing updates about the progress of the resolution of the quiet car problem on the NFB Web site at <www.nfb.org>, contact your NFB state affiliate and ask how you can help, discuss it within your family, and tell your neighbors and friends about it.

Let me go on record as one of those who do not think that Al Gore is a nut. Bob and I are quite consciously doing more walking, trying not to waste water, replacing light bulbs with energy-saving ones, and keeping the thermostat turned further down and wearing sweaters in the house. I suspect that the next car we buy will be a hybrid because we think it is up to everyone to conserve oil and try to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air.

That said, I also confess some nervousness at the prospect of owning a car that makes little or no noise when traveling at twenty-five miles an hour or less--that is, when it is operating on battery rather than using its internal combustion engine. If you have not consciously had a close encounter with a hybrid car, you are in for an unpleasant surprise. I have been a part of experiments to determine how close a moving hybrid car can come to expectant pedestrians without the blind people�s hearing its approach. Even in a quiet area with little or no other traffic, the answer is that the Toyota Prius was on top of us every time before most of us guessed that it was present at all. The Honda Civic was a bit easier to hear in a very quiet area, but it too would have been unnoticeable with a background of normal city noise. Hybrids really are stealth vehicles.

Having a growing percentage of the cars on the road starting, idling, accelerating, and traveling in city traffic in virtual silence constitutes a significant safety problem for all pedestrians. The difference between blind pedestrians and the rest of the walking and cycling population is that we already recognize the danger. So far most other people are unaware of what can happen. Blind people recognize that we depend on our hearing to tell us when it is safe to cross streets and whether a car is moving toward us in a parking lot or driveway. Very gradually members of the general public are becoming aware that the increasing numbers of hybrid cars mean trouble in River City. Hybrid drivers have begun to comment that pedestrians are much dumber than they used to be, walking out in front of their cars or stepping into their path when they are backing up. It has not yet occurred to most of these drivers that, without the warning cue of engine noise, the people they are complaining about have just not looked in the correct direction to spot them. Sighted pedestrians are also beginning to report near misses or so-far insignificant accidents in which hybrids have bumped them or run over a foot before the walker realized that a car was there at all. Sleeping pets that did not wake in time to scramble out of the way have been run over in driveways by hybrid owners who didn�t see them lying there.

All these facts have resulted in the NFB�s increasingly energetic efforts to bell the cat, as it were. Nearly four years ago President Maurer appointed a Committee on Automobile and Pedestrian Safety (CAPS). Debbie Kent Stein chairs the committee, and I serve on it. At first, when we managed to catch the attention of the auto makers however briefly, they refused to take us seriously, accusing us of not caring about the environment. They maintained that any added sound cue, which they labeled noise pollution, would be as unacceptable to the public as any other sort of pollution, and they suggested by implication that the loss of a few blind people who refused to accept the inevitable was a small price to pay for a quieter, less polluted world.

The truth is that we are not asking that hybrids shatter the calm of the neighborhood with NASCAR-racing-level noise. In fact, we have not put forward any specific demand about adding sound to hybrids. We have suggested that pedestrians--all pedestrians--are used to listening to traffic sounds as a cue to when it is safe to cross traffic lanes. So it seems logical to us that speakers mounted on the front fenders broadcasting the sound of an engine idling, accelerating, traveling at traffic speed, or braking (actually reflecting what the hybrid is doing) would be useful to all walkers and add very little volume to the ambient noise. All internal combustion engines are getting quieter, so it would not require much volume for a hybrid motor to become audible to most people. When trials were held at the NFB of California convention this past fall, people driving hybrid cars with speakers mounted on their fenders could hardly hear the sound they were projecting forward--even though no effort had been made to soundproof their vehicles.

In the past year we have managed to attract some media attention to this problem, and gradually the auto makers are beginning to realize that it may need to be addressed. A recent hopeful development is a series of ongoing meetings between representatives of the National Federation of the Blind and the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers. But there are many important and difficult questions that must be addressed. A solution will cost some money, even if the cost per vehicle is actually very small. Who should start the ball rolling: the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Highway Administration, the insurance industry, Congress, the international regulatory bodies? Who should do the research? Who will pay for it?

One approach is to introduce model legislation in various state legislatures in the hope that we can persuade state law-makers to listen to our concerns and take some action at the state level. We have written model legislation, and that is one strategy we will pursue. Maryland passed a bill that created a task force to study potential solutions to the silent vehicle problem in the 2008 legislative session. Of course, a national solution holds more promise and we�ve been doing our work on that front, too. On April 9, Representatives Edolphus �Ed� Towns (New York) and Cliff Stearns (Florida) introduced The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2008, HR57-34. This bill requires the Secretary of Transportation to conduct a study on how to protect the blind and others from being injured or killed by vehicles using hybrid, electric, and other silent engine technologies. The bill also requires that upon completion of the study, the Secretary will report the findings of the study to Congress and, within ninety days, establish a minimum vehicle safety standard for all new vehicles sold in the United States.

We have much work left to do, but we are certainly further along in convincing the public, auto manufacturers, and legislators that the problem of silent cars for blind people and other pedestrians is very real indeed.

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