Braille Monitor                                                   March 2010

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

Purpose: To enact the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, which will establish a motor vehicle safety standard to alert blind and other pedestrians of the presence of silent hybrid and electric vehicles.

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 sound 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 auditory 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 endanger the safety, not only of blind people, but also of small children, seniors, cyclists, and runners.

Need for Congressional Action: For several years the National Federation of the Blind has been concerned about the proliferation of silent vehicles. These concerns were validated by a recent report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which concluded that at low speeds hybrid and electric vehicles are twice as likely to be involved in accidents with pedestrians as vehicles with internal combustion engines. Recently automobile manufacturers have acknowledged the dangers posed to blind pedestrians by silent-vehicle technology and have begun to work with the National Federation of the Blind to craft solutions. While participation from some manufacturers is an important first step, many others continue to take a wait-and-see approach on this important issue. 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 (including newly blinded veterans), small children, seniors, cyclists, and runners shocks the nation.

Proposed Legislation: The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act (H.R. 734 and S. 841) was introduced by Congressmen Towns and Stearns in the House and by Senators Kerry and Specter in the Senate. This legislation directs 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 safety standard. This approach will encourage manufacturers to use innovative and cost-effective techniques to achieve the motor vehicle safety standard.

Automobiles that operate in complete silence endanger the safety of all of us; silent operation should be viewed as a design flaw comparable to the lack of seat belts or air bags, and therefore this safety issue must be addressed.

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 motor vehicle safety 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 be added as cosponsors by contacting Doug Frost in Senator Kerry’s office.

Contact Information:
Jesse Hartle
Government Programs Specialist
Phone (410) 659-9314, ext. 2233
Email <[email protected]>

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