From the Editor: As Monitor readers know, we have been increasingly concerned over the past several years about the growing threat electric and hybrid cars pose to all pedestrians, but particularly to those who depend on hearing the sound of vehicle engines to travel safely. For the most part we have been something of a voice crying in the wilderness with next to no one listening, but in recent months several reporters have written stories about the problem, most notably Raymund Flandez in the Wall Street Journal edition of February 13, 2007, in an article titled, “Blind Pedestrians Say Quiet Hybrids Pose Safety Threat.” Then, on February 22, the NPR program All Things Considered did a fine interview and demonstration on the street in which Robert Siegel talked with NFB First Vice President Fred Schroeder about the dangers of these stealth cars. In late May two more stories appeared, and we can only applaud this indication of growing media recognition of the problems associated with quiet cars. Any optimism that this coverage might have engendered, however, is tempered by a worrisome decision on the part of automobile manufacturers. We have been urging individual carmakers to discuss the quiet car problem with us in the hope that one of them might agree to develop a low-cost, relatively nonintrusive method for belling the automotive cat. Neither Toyota nor General Motors has indicated interest in such a meeting, but Honda expressed willingness to come to the National Center to discuss the issue in May. Four days before that meeting, however, a Honda official called to cancel the meeting. He explained that the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, an industry trade association, had assumed responsibility for dealing with this issue, so Honda officials had decided that it would not be appropriate for individual manufacturers to discuss it. Needless to say, so far the Association has said nothing to us about the matter. It begins to look as if the manufacturers will not take the problem posed by quiet cars seriously until the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandates that they do so. We are hampered in bringing this matter to the attention of federal officials, however, because we are working to solve the problem before people are killed or severely injured when they did not hear a quiet car coming. This means that we do not have statistics demonstrating beyond doubt that silent cars pose a genuine threat to pedestrians, particularly blind ones. We request that readers be diligent in passing along personal experiences of problems with quiet cars or media reports of pedestrian accidents caused by these vehicles. You should contact Debbie Stein, chairperson of the NFB Committee for Automobile and Pedestrian Safety (CAPS), , (773) 631-1093. Below are the two articles that appeared in May: the first in the Albuquerque Tribune and the second in the Vancouver, Washington, Columbian.
On the whole both these stories are balanced and lay out the problem fairly. One does wish, however, that reporters would press manufacturers a bit harder when they respond to questions by acknowledging that they are aware of the problem and therefore urge drivers and pedestrians alike to be more careful at intersections. One wonders how they expect blind pedestrians to use greater care while crossing streets when ambient noise completely masks the approach of virtually silent vehicles. Here are the two articles:
Art Schreiber took a walk in his Old Town neighborhood recently--he often does while on the hunt for a bite to eat or just to run some errands. Approaching the corner of 12th Street and Roma Avenue Southwest, he stopped to do what all blind people do at intersections: listen for cars. Hearing none, he started to walk across the street. "Suddenly, I hear a horn and a screeching of brakes," he said. "The driver swerved to miss me. Fortunately, there was nothing coming the other way." Schreiber had nearly been injured or killed by what is an increasingly vexing problem facing the visually impaired and, some say, pedestrians in general: super-quiet hybrid cars. "I didn't hear anything," Schreiber said. "It's going to be, more and more, a problem. I don't know what we're going to do." At lower speeds hybrids run off of batteries, which means the engine makes almost no noise. A louder gasoline engine kicks in at higher speeds. The cars are proving popular, and manufacturers are struggling to keep up with demand. But worries grow right along with the popularity. "The strides that we've made in terms of training blind people to travel independently are in jeopardy," said Greg Trapp, the executive director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. "This is an issue of life and death."
Imagine another scenario: Someone with 20/20 vision is putting groceries in the back of a car. He hears a conventional car behind him, then looks over at it. "That's the reaction that keeps you from backing up into the path of a car," Trapp said. "I really think this is an issue that goes beyond people who are blind and visually impaired." So what to do? One obvious solution is to install some sort of noise-making device on the cars. "Everybody that we've talked to on the engineering side says that there are technical fixes," said Fred Schroeder, a vice president at the National Federation of the Blind. But, "we've contacted the major car manufacturers many times and really not had a response from them." The big fish in the hybrid pond is Toyota, which has sold just over 500,000 hybrid cars in the United States since 2000 and leads the world in manufacturing the vehicles. "Toyota is aware of this issue, and we are studying it," said Sam Butto, a spokesman for the company. He said it was a matter of balancing concerns about the visually impaired with concerns about noise pollution.
One Albuquerquean is offering what could become a technical solution to the problem. Mike Langner, the retired engineer of KKOB radio, says an enterprising company could put together a motion-sensing device that could give a sound-based clue about approaching objects. Pack it all together, and it could act as a kind of flashlight that blind people could use to avoid hybrids. "It's all commercial, off-the-shelf stuff," Langner said. "It just needs to be put together." Trapp called it a laudable idea, but said it's a long way off and could present some problems, such as what would happen if the batteries died. "I tend to favor low-tech solutions," he said. "We really need a solution that will solve the problem that we're encountering today."
Each weekday morning Nick Wilks crosses just one street. That's how the seventeen-year-old gets from his dorm room at Washington State School for the Blind to classes at Hudson's Bay High School. The intersection of East Reserve Street and East McLoughlin Boulevard is quiet most of the time. But about 10:35 a.m., when Wilks is on his way back, it's an obstacle course. Parking lots at nearby Clark College are filling. Young drivers on lunch break from Hudson's Bay are often whipping through that intersection from all directions. Wilks has almost been hit by cars there twice this school year. What's saved him? Hearing the uncomfortably close chugs of combustion engines. Yet what if cars were silent? That sounds like a futuristic dream, a pleasing idea to those irritated by contemporary noise pollution. But it's a frightening prospect to those, such as Wilks, who rely on sounds to survive. Hybrid vehicles are not only emitting less toxins in the air and consuming fuel more efficiently, but they are reducing ambient clatter. A Toyota Prius running on its electric motor, which it typically does at low speeds, is virtually silent.
The National Federation of the Blind has been voicing concerns about the unintended side effect of that silence since shortly after Toyota introduced the Prius, the first mass-produced hybrid, in 2000. The group says these quiet cars are a hazard not only to blind people but also to anyone who needs sounds for safety, including children, the elderly, and bicyclists. "If cars don't make noise, blind people can't safely navigate streets. This really is a problem," said John Paré, the National Federation of the Blind's director of public relations.
A blind woman in California recently reported having her foot run over by a Prius. She commented that she didn't even know the car was there before it hit her. Several other blind people have described minor injuries or near misses to the National Federation of the Blind, though the organization hasn't kept detailed records of the complaints. The group forecasts even worse accidents ahead, as the cars become more prevalent, unless automakers develop some sort of noisemaker for these vehicles. Hybrids have become a growing trend in American cars. There now are about 400,000 of them on U.S. roads, according to market researchers R.L. Polk & Co. New registrations doubled from 2004 to 2005, the most recent data available. No pedestrian death has been linked to these cars. But, National Federation of the Blind representatives note, there is no tracking mechanism either. Representatives for the two most prominent producers of hybrid cars, Toyota and Honda, say they are aware of the sound concerns and are considering options.
Aerospace materials engineer David Evans, who tested hybrid and electric vehicles at Stanford University in the 1970s, has been lecturing on this topic, including speaking to the National Federation of the Blind. He says early developers of the technology quickly learned that pedestrians couldn't hear the cars, and his group used whistles to solve the problem. But carmakers are hesitant to add noise to the environment and to incur that expense, said Denise Morrissey, a spokeswoman for Toyota Motor Sales USA. "The [industry] trend is toward quiet powertrains in all sorts of vehicles," she said. "That trend has raised the need for other drivers and pedestrians to increase caution and to be more aware of the surroundings." Honda spokesman Sage Marie says this topic is a broad manufacturer's concern, not something that each company should be pursuing individually. He says the solution invariably will come through a collaboration among government regulators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, concerned groups such as the National Federation of the Blind, and the industry's trade associations, including the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers. Michael Cammisa, director of safety for that auto trade group, did not return multiple telephone calls requesting an interview for this story.
Stein [Debbie Kent Stein, chair of our Committee for Automobile and Pedestrian Safety] of the National Federation of the Blind and others already have begun lobbying the Society of Automotive Engineers to develop protocols for minimum sound levels for vehicles sold in the U.S. Stein said her group is proactively navigating the bureaucracy before someone gets killed or seriously injured in an accident that could have been prevented. In the meantime blind pedestrians feel vulnerable. Wilks, the Washington State School for the Blind's student body president, said sound signals are particularly important to alert pedestrians to cars making right turns across walkways. Wilks was in the crosswalk between his schools a few months ago when two cars, both turning right, pinned him in the middle. In another incident in January he was about to step into the crosswalk when a driver decided to speed up and make a right turn directly in front of him. "That was really scary," he said. "I was just a couple of feet from the car." Both times, he said, the sounds of the combustion engines helped him to avoid injury.
The National Federation of the Blind has become concerned enough about this perceived threat that it conducted an experiment this year at its annual conference. About thirty blind or visually impaired members waited at an intersection in front of the group's headquarters in Baltimore and were asked to signal when they could hear a car approach. A Prius went by undetected. They repeated the experiment in a quiet alley. The Prius that time could be heard, but only at about fifteen feet away. Stein said, "I was aware, in the abstract, that we were going to have electric cars that are very quiet, and something would have to be done to make those pedestrian-friendly. Then, all of a sudden these things were out on the road, and nothing had been done." Stein said the National Federation of the Blind supports hybrid cars and their benefits. But the group also wants to ensure they are safe for pedestrians. The organization is pitching for a device that makes the usual engine noise: "We want something that's not going to be irritating to people. We're hoping for a low-tech, inexpensive solution that can be an automatic add-on."
The Washington State School for the Blind, meanwhile, has a dilemma. As a state agency, its staff reports directly to an office in Olympia. That means four or five road trips a week from the Vancouver school, plus the 300 to 600 miles a week that teachers drive to serve students throughout the state. The staff makes those trips in a fleet of four hybrid vehicles. Principal Craig Meador acknowledges the irony. "I kind of look at it this way: The technology is here, whether we like it or not," he said. "The issue isn't so much that we are doing a good job with our gas mileage as, are we supporting something that can be a danger and sometimes lethal to the blind community? That concerns us." He added, "We're probably going to see more of these kinds of things on the market. We need to teach [blind students] to operate safely around these cars, rather than to bury our head in the sand." To keep up to date on this issue, check out the CAPS Web site at