Pedestrian, bike groups not as loud on EV noise


plug-in-series-graphic1 In this story, the third in a multi-part series on the debate over plug-in and hybrid vehicles’ comparative quiet and the potential effect of this on pedestrian and biker safety, SolarChargedDriving.Com spotlights the perspective of pedestrian and bicycle safety advocates in the U.S. on this issue. Other installments of the series:
Part 1: EV drivers add voices to noise and safety debate
Part 2: NFB pushes for constant noise to be added to EVs
Part 3: Pedestrian, bike groups not as loud as NFB on EV noise
Part 4: Big automakers support artificial noise for EVs

As the debate on adding artificial noise to plug-in vehicles and to hybrid cars unfolds, bicyclist and pedestrian advocacy groups have so far been among the quieter communities in the discussion.

Though bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups have not been as vocal as, for example, blind advocacy groups, views have been expressed on either side of the issue.

“This is an area that’s becoming a concern,” says director of the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center (HSRC) David Harkey.

Colorado bike courier:
‘Less noise is a good thing’

bike-courier-wiki Chris Milucky works as a courier in Boulder, Colo. He says quiet cars are a problem at slow speeds because the tires are not creating noise on the pavement.

At speeds over 30 miles per hour, he says he gets all the information needed to feel safe, including where they are, how fast they are going and whether they are accelerating or decelerating.

Matt Hayes, also a Boulder cyclist, says he has been surprised by quiet hybrids on several occasions when the vehicles were moving at low speeds.

Hayes adds that cyclists and pedestrians have become conditioned to loud car noises, but he says he feels this reliance on high levels of noise can change. As EVs and hybrids become more prevalent, cyclists and pedestrians can adapt to using cues besides hearing to detect the vehicles.

“I think loud motor vehicles are something cyclists and pedestrians are used to but it doesn’t have to be that way,” he notes. “As more and more electric vehicles take to the streets cyclists and pedestrians will stop relying on motor noise and find another way to monitor traffic. Less noise is a good thing, and shouldn’t be reversed by artificially bombarding our eardrums.”

However, the center does not yet have an official stand on the adding artificial noise to plug-ins and hybrids.

Harkey emphasizes the risk EVs, PHEVs and hybrids pose for visually-impaired pedestrians, but says quiet cars also potentially endanger bicyclists and sighted pedestrians.

Discuss the EV/PHEV noise & safety controversy in our Sun Miles™ Forum.

“They certainly can be a risk for bicyclists too. Bicyclists do rely to a certain extent on noise,” he notes.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a national nonprofit organization committed to preventing highway collisions, does not have an official stand on the debate swirling around whether to require artificial noise devices for plug-ins and hybrids, though it did give the issue some attention in its December 2009 Status Report Newsletter.

And Transportation Alternatives, a pedestrian, bicyclist and public transit advocacy group in New York City, does not have an official stand on the issue either. The group has, however, worked to keep electric Segways off New York City sidewalks for pedestrian safety concerns.

Colorado Springs pedestrian safety advocate feels extra noise unnecessary
Al Brody is a member of the Colorado Springs pedestrian safety group Drive-Smart Colorado, which like the HSRC, the IIHS and Transportation Alternatives does not have an official stand on the issue.

On a personal level, Brody says he feels additional noise for EVs is unnecessary.

He says he relies heavily on sight when riding his bike or as a pedestrian. He uses visual vigilance to stay safe.

“As a bicyclist, I don’t feel electric vehicles need additional noise,” he says. “I look forward to the quiet.”

Brody has been a driver’s education instructor and is a certified League of American Bicyclists League Certified Instructor (LCI).

He also sits on National Center for Safe Routes to School committees at the local, state and national levels.

He says the issue of quiet plug-in and hybrid vehicles is not at the forefront for school-zone safety advocacy groups.

“This isn’t what’s killing kids in school zones,” he says.

Ambient noise pollution is an issue raised by some anti-artificial noise addition advocates. If the ambient noise level in cities was reduced, they say, it would be easier to hear EVs and PHEVs, and would make additional artificial noise unnecessary.

The city of Colorado Springs has made an effort to reduce light pollution by turning off 10,000 street lights at night, says Brody. Reducing the light pollution makes biking safer, because bicyclists’ reflectors stand out more in a darker environment, he says. According to Brody, reducing noise pollution would have a similar effect. Bringing the ambient noise level down would make individual vehicles easier to hear.

Driver habits the most important safety factor
Though it doesn’t have an official stand on the question of adding artificial noise to plug-in and hybrid vehicles, the Denver bicycle advocacy group Bicycle Colorado supports improvements in safety that increase communication between road users, says Executive Director Dan Grunig.

pedestrians-muliple2Regardless of whether or not a sound is added to plug-in and hybrid vehicles, it is imperative that all vehicles respect bicyclists and drive safely around them, emphasizes Grunig.

“Noise doesn’t permit them to unsafely pass,” he says.

In its bicycle safety classes, Bicycle Colorado stresses using every sense when cycling.

As a cyclist, you need to use every sense available and need to be very aware of the surroundings.
–Dan Grunig, executive director, Bicycle Colorado

“As a cyclist, you need to use every sense available and need to be very aware of the surroundings,” says Grunig.

The greatest concern arises over lower speeds of travel when plug-ins and hybrids are quieter than gas-powered cars, explains Grunig.

bikers-sandpointThe low speeds would most likely be the speeds at which bicyclists spend most of their time traveling alongside EVs and PHEVs, says Grunig.

According to Grunig, the cyclists he has discussed the issue with at Bicycle Colorado are fairly neutral on the issue of adding artificial sounds to plug-in and hybrid vehicles when it concerns biking. However, he says many add they would feel less safe around EVs when in the pedestrian role.

Reduced car noise more of problem for pedestrians than bikers?
More people are pedestrians than are cyclists and the debate may be more important to that group, notes Grunig.

“Even if you don’t bike, you walk,” he says.

Grunig says he feels there probably would not be a strong public reaction if a noise was added to EVs and PHEVs before they were more widespread.

“I think the public would be relatively neutral on the issue,” he says. “It’s not adding something to the environment that isn’t already there.”

Brody has a different view. He thinks public reaction to adding artificial noise to plug-in and hybrid vehicles would be quick, and negative.

“It would probably be a knee-jerk reaction by some. It would probably be looked at as ‘that was stupid’ later on,” he says.

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