The National Federation of the Blind (NFB), an advocacy group that works to represent the interests of the approximately 1.3 million blind people in the U.S., wants Congress to pass a law which would require automakers to add an artificial sound-emitting device to plug-in vehicles and hybrids.
The NFB is lobbying for a device that would produce a constant sound. This would mean that some artificial sound would be emitted whether the car is in motion or not.
‘I couldn’t hear the car go by’
For the safety of blind pedestrians plug-in vehicles and hybrids should emit sufficient noise, says Linda Yacks of Denver, an administrative assistant at the American Council of the Blind Colorado chapter.
Yacks attended the 2008 national conference of the American Council of the Blind in Louisville, Ky., where she experienced the quiet of an electric vehicle. An EV was driven in front of a group of blind individuals to determine how well they could assess the position and movement of the vehicle.
“I was in the front row,” she said. “And I couldn’t hear the car go by.”
Yacks also said that as a blind pedestrian it is crucial when crossing a street at a stop light to know if traffic beside you is moving. At intersections without a chirping cross-walk noise, Yacks said she relies on the sounds coming from traffic that is moving parallel to her — which indicate to her whether cars are moving or standing — to determine whether or not to cross the street.
According to a NFB spokesperson and a member of the American Council of the Blind Colorado interviewed for this story, a constant sound is necessary in order for blind pedestrians to safely determine when a car is present and whether or not it is in motion.
Research is currently being conducted in order to determine what sort of artificial noise emitting device will strike the best balance between blind pedestrian safety and larger concerns about urban noise pollution.
In an effort to help shape the sound-emission ground rules for plug-in vehicles before they become widely available to consumers in the fall of this year, the NFB is working to turn the 2009 Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act into law.
U.S. Congressmen Ed Towns (D-New York) and Cliff Sterns (R-Florida) introduced the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement act to the House as H.R. 734 in January of 2009. In April of 2009, Senators John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) and Arlen Specter (D-Pennsylvania) introduced the act in the Senate as S. 841.
The bill has 174 cosponsors in the House and 19 in the Senate.
As currently written, the bill seeks to “direct the Secretary of Transportation to study and establish a motor vehicle safety standard that provides for a means of alerting blind and other pedestrians of motor vehicle operation.”
The bill also calls for a two-year study by the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). Upon completion of the study the Secretary of Transportation would issue a regulation within 90 days for car manufacturers to add artificial sound to EVs, PHEVs and hybrids. The regulation would become law two years after it is issued.
‘All pedestrians use vehicle noise’ The NFB is pushing to add additional sound to EVs and PHEVs because hearing a nearby vehicle is critical not only for the blind, but for pedestrians in general, said Chris Danielsen, director of public relations for the NFB.
“All pedestrians use vehicle noise,” says Danielsen. “They do this whether they realize they’re doing it or not.”
Danielsen adds that vehicles need to make some degree of sound.
“We don’t think a silent vehicle is a safe vehicle,” he says.
In November the NFB announced a partnership with General Motors and Chevrolet to study the noise and safety issue with respect to hybrid and plug-in vehicles.
An NFB press release announcing the partnership states, “Members of the National Federation of the Blind and engineers from GM began meeting earlier this year to understand the safety needs of pedestrians with respect to quiet vehicles, and to work on solutions for the benefit of pedestrians, cyclists, runners, children and other members of the public.”
Research is needed to determine the minimum decibel level for an artificial sound to be easily audible, as well as what kind of sound would be acceptable, notes Danielsen.
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NFB has not settled on specific artificial noise The research would examine exactly what kind of sound people hear in their head when they think of a car engine. The NFB does not yet know which engine sounds, or combination of sounds, an artificial sound emitting system on an EV, PHEV or hybrid would mimic, says Danielsen.
The parameters of the study have not yet been outlined, but, Danielsen notes, the sound would need to give blind pedestrians the same information they currently get from a gas-powered car.
Danielsen says the NFB wants a constant and consistent sound to be added to hybrids and plug-in vehicles. In other words, the NFB wants a sound device for plug-ins and hybrids which would emit noise whether the vehicle is stopped, or in motion, accelerating or decelerating.
Danielsen says current research into an artificial sound-emitting device for hybrids, EVs and PHEVs will seek to establish the quietest sound level that could be safely heard by pedestrians. He adds that the NFB does not yet know what that level will be, though it would be the minimum level to be safely audible.
“Cars don’t need to sound like they did twenty or thirty years ago,” says Danielsen.
The decision on the level and type of sound to require would be made by NHTSA researchers upon completion of the study.
NFB wants uniform sound added to plug-ins and hybrids As currently written, the bill in Congress defines this level as, “The minimum level of sound emitted from a motor vehicle that is necessary to provide blind pedestrians with the information needed to make safe travel judgments.”
The NFB wants a uniform sound to be added by every plug-in and hybrid manufacturer, and not a series of different sounds, said Danielsen.
He also said the NFB wants a sound that’s similar to that of a gas-powered car.
“It would be good if it is comparable to a gas-powered car sound,” says Danielsen. “It should be a sound people recognize.”
It’s important for blind pedestrians crossing the street to be able to hear the vehicles parallel to them idling at the red light as well as perpendicular cross-traffic, he says.
Some critics of adding sound to hybrid and plug-in cars cite noise pollution as a reason for keeping electric and hybrid vehicles comparatively quiet.
To those advocating for reducing noise pollution, Danielsen says that the NFB doesn’t want noisier cities.
He also said urban noise pollution, such as that produced at construction sites and by dump trucks, affects blind people too as it can mask the sounds they are specifically listening for, such as nearby passenger vehicles.
According to Danielsen, reducing the level of urban noise pollution is not a realistic solution, because in the experience of NFB members, EVs and hybrids have been inaudible even in very quiet environments.
Ambient noise issues “Some have suggested that this masking, and not the silence of hybrid and electric vehicles, is the real problem,” says Danielsen. “But we do not believe this to be the case, since both scientific testing and the experience of our members indicates that hybrid and electric vehicles can’t be heard even in the quietest of environments with little other ambient sound.”
Danielsen also says that in addition to posing a safety threat to both blind and sighted pedestrians and bikers, vehicles that are too quiet also pose a threat to the independence of the blind.
If all vehicles become silent, blind people will find that we cannot travel anywhere unaccompanied, severely limiting our ability to get to our jobs, schools, and other activities in our communities. –Chris Danielsen, Director of Public Relations, National Federation of the Blind
“Currently, blind people are able to travel freely and independently; most do this with the assistance of white canes and a much smaller number do it with the assistance of guide dogs. If all vehicles become silent, however, blind people will find that we cannot travel anywhere unaccompanied, severely limiting our ability to get to our jobs, schools, and other activities in our communities,” he says.
Reducing the independence of the blind would also threaten the degree to which they can participate in society, says Danielsen.
“Whereas blind people now are more integrated into society than we have ever been in the past, a world of silent vehicles would return us to the days when we had to largely stay at home,” he says.
NFB not acting prematurely While the widespread availability of EVs and PHEVs is still nearly one year away, Danielsen says he believes the NFB is not acting prematurely in calling for the addition of an artificial noise to plug-in vehicles and hybrids.
“We do not believe we are asking for action too early,” he explains. “Waiting until more hybrid and electric vehicles are on the road will only increase the danger for pedestrians.”
He says the time frames outlined in the bill currently before Congress, including a two-year study, 90-day regulation writing period, and two years for auto makers to comply, will allow adequate time for the public to voice its opinion on the issue.
“We believe that the time frames contemplated in the legislation provide adequate time for all concerned to weigh in,” he says.
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