Braille Monitor                                                    April 2009

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

Purpose: To require hybrid, electric, and other vehicles to emit a minimum level of sound to alert blind and other pedestrians of 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 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 advance 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. Studies have shown that sighted pedestrians also use this information when traveling.

Over the past few years, however, vehicles that are completely silent in certain modes of operation have come on the market, and many more silent vehicles are expected in the near future. These vehicles are designed to have many benefits, including improved fuel efficiency and reduced emissions, but they do not need to be silent in order to achieve these intended benefits. An unintended consequence of these vehicles as they are currently designed is that they will reduce the independence of blind Americans and endanger the lives, not only of blind people, but also of small children, seniors, cyclists, and runners.

Currently the most popular of these vehicles is the gasoline-electric hybrid, which alternates 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 for safety these vehicles must meet a minimum sound standard. 

On April 9, 2008, Congressmen Ed Towns and Cliff Stearns introduced H.R. 5734 (the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2008). This legislation sought to solve the problem of silent cars by authorizing a two-year study to determine the best method for allowing blind individuals to recognize the presence of silent cars, and by requiring that, two years after the study was completed, all new vehicles sold in the United States must comply with the solution determined by the study. In the 110th Congress, eighty-eight members of the House cosponsored this legislation.

Need for Congressional Action: For several years the National Federation of the Blind has been concerned about the proliferation of silent vehicles. Recently automobile manufacturers have acknowledged the problems posed to blind pedestrians by silent vehicle technology and have begun to work with the National Federation of the Blind to seek solutions. However, federal regulators have indicated that, in the absence of statistics on injuries or deaths caused by hybrid vehicles, nothing can be done. Congress must therefore direct the Department of Transportation to take action. It is crucial that this problem be addressed before the inevitable avalanche of tragedies involving blind people, small children, seniors, cyclists, runners, and newly blinded veterans shocks the nation.

Proposed Legislation: Congressmen Towns and Stearns have reintroduced the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act to direct the Secretary of Transportation to conduct a study and establish a motor vehicle safety standard that provides a means of alerting blind and other pedestrians of motor vehicle operation, based on appropriate scientific research and consultation with blind Americans and other affected groups. This national motor vehicle safety standard must 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 to emit a minimum sound discernible by blind and other pedestrians will not negatively affect environmental benefits of gasoline-electric hybrids and other automobiles running on alternate power sources, and the emitted sound need not be loud enough to contribute to noise pollution. Automobiles that operate in complete silence, however, endanger the safety of all of us; silent operation should be viewed as a design flaw comparable to the lack of seatbelts or airbags.  

Requested Action: Please support blind Americans by cosponsoring the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act to authorize 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. In the House of Representatives, members can be added by contacting Emily Khoury in Congressman Towns’s office, or James Thomas in Congressman Stearns’s office. In the Senate, members can support independence for blind Americans by sponsoring companion legislation.


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