Feds consider rule for electric car noises to alert blind pedestrians

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Federal regulators have proposed a rule to require electric and hybrid car manufacturers to add artificial noises that to alert pedestrians, in particular the blind, to slow-moving electric vehicles.

“Because these cars operate so quietly, particularly at low speeds, they are involved in more accidents with pedestrians and cyclists who can’t hear the vehicle coming,” according to the Department of Transportation. “This problem is even bigger for the visually impaired who rely on sounds for guidance.”

The rule has been languishing at the White House since May of this year and would require the secretary of transportation to create a “motor vehicle safety standard” — basically making sure hybrids and electric cars have artificial sounds so blind people can hear them.

The secretary of transportation was supposed to initiate rule-making by July 2012, and issue a final rule in January 2014. However, the rule has been languishing in the White House for about 5 months. Rules generally spend one or two months at the White House.

“A five month hold on a rule past its statutory deadline is rare,” Sam Batkins, director of regulatory policy at the American Action Forum, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is conducting research for the rule, but has not developed any cost-benefit estimates yet, but the rule is classified as economically significant — meaning it has an impact of more than $100 million on the economy.

“All we know about this proposal is that it would have a minimum impact on the economy of $100 million,” Batkins added. “That the rule is being held in limbo indicates the impact is likely much higher. The public won’t know until the proposal is released.”

However, the NHTSA “believes that there are no significant risks associated with this rulemaking and that only beneficial outcomes will occur.”

“Even as we make giant leaps forward with hybrid and electric vehicles, we must remain laser focused on safety,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland in a statement last year. “With more and more quiet vehicles on the road, we have to consider their effect on pedestrians.”

Initial NHTSA research found that the average person — not just the blind — took longer to detect electric vehicles, especially at lower speeds, as opposed to conventional vehicles. Currently, the agency is testing synthetic sounds in electric and hybrid vehicles that emit sound at low speeds.

The NHTSA study selected three types of driving maneuvers that they believe pose high risks for the blind. They tested Vehicles “backing out at 5 mph” to mimic backing out of a driveway, vehicles slowing down from 20 mph to 10 mph to mimic a vehicle “preparing to turn right from the parallel street,” and vehicles approaching at a “constant low speed.”

“The blind, like all pedestrians, must be able to travel to work, to school, to church, and to other places in our communities, and we must be able to hear vehicles in order to do so,” said Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind.

The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2010, sponsored by Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, requires the Secretary of Transportation to study and create a safety standard that allows the blind to be alerted when electric vehicles are nearby. The bill was signed into law by President Barack Obama in January 2011.

Cosponsors of the bill included Democratic Senators Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Republican Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Olympia Snowe of Maine.

“As new vehicle technologies become more prevalent in the years to come, The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act will ensure that people who are blind will still be able to travel safely,” said Mitch Pomerantz, President of the American Council of the Blind.

It is unclear why honking a car horn is unsuitable to alert pedestrians, in a particular the blind, to the presence of an electric vehicle.

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