Feds to require hybrids, electric cars to emit sounds to alert blind pedestrians

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed a new rule requiring hybrid and electric cars to make sounds to alert pedestrians, in particular the blind and visually impaired.

Hybrids and electric cars don’t rely on an internal combustion engine while driving at low speeds, so they are harder for the blind to detect. The rule would require that hybrids and electric cars traveling under 18 miles per hour would need to emit sounds that are detectable under a wide range of noises and sounds heard on the street.

According to NHTSA, vehicles traveling above 18 miles per hour make enough noise to be heard by pedestrians and bicyclists.

“Safety is our highest priority, and this proposal will help keep everyone using our nation’s streets and roadways safe, whether they are motorists, bicyclists or pedestrians, and especially the blind and visually impaired,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Automakers would be required to install sound emitting devices into their hybrid and electric vehicle fleets, but NHTSA says that they would have flexibility when deciding which sound their vehicles will emit.

“Our proposal would allow manufacturers the flexibility to design different sounds for different makes and models while still providing an opportunity for pedestrians, bicyclists and the visually impaired to detect and recognize a vehicle and make a decision about whether it is safe to cross the street,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland.

Some automakers have already started adding noise-makers to their vehicles. reports that the 2013 model Chevrolet Volt will let drivers activate a warning sound and the the Nissan Leaf has a system that automatically emits a sound while driving under 18 miles per hour. The 2012 model year U.S. versions of the hybrid Toyota Prius will automatically make an “electronic whirring sound” while travelling at speeds below 15 mph.

NHTSA estimates that the total installation and fuel costs for the rule are between $24.4 million and $25 million, and that the rule would save 35 lives and prevent 2,800 pedestrian and bicyclist injuries per year.

The rule has received commendations from the auto industry and advocacy groups for the blind.

“The Association of Global Automakers commends the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the release of their notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on effective noise standards for quiet vehicles,” the group said in a statement. “As our members continue to bring more fuel efficient hybrids and electric vehicles to the market place, we recognize the importance of setting industry-wide noise standards for pedestrian safety.”

“Blind people cannot travel safely and independently without the sound of traffic,” Christopher Danielsen, public relations director at the National Federation of the Blind, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an email. “It is not merely a question of knowing that a hybrid or electric vehicle is nearby; blind people need to know the direction and speed that a vehicle is traveling and to be able to discern the overall pattern of traffic at an intersection.”

“We also believe that the rule will protect other pedestrians, since all of us use the sound of traffic to maintain awareness, whether we realize that we are doing so or not,” he added. “We are currently reviewing the technical details of the rule in preparation for submitting our public comments.”

The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2010 requires the NHTA to mandate that auto manufacturers put sound emitters into their hybrid and electric vehicles to alert the blind and visually-impaired, as well as other pedestrians. PSEA was signed into law by President Obama in 2011.

“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, on the signing of the law.

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