Electric, hybrid cars run quiet: That's bad for blind people

The auto industry for decades worked to make cars as quiet as possible. With electric cars the near ultimate has been achieved -- virtually no noise at all.

But we may have a problem. To be more specific, pedestrians may have a problem. And if you're a blind pedestrian used to hearing cars coming, there may really be a problem.

"I think we're going to have people die," said Gary Wunder, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri. "Anything that can outweigh a pedestrian by two tons needs to make a sound."

Last summer, a blind woman in Kansas City, Kan., had a very close call. She wasn't hit, but her white cane was run over and broken, she suspects by a hybrid vehicle.

Initially, the concerns of the blind and other pedestrians didn't appear to be taken all that seriously. After all, American motorists kill around 4,500 pedestrians each year and injure 70,000 others, with no notable campaigns to curb that carnage.

But this time may be different, given the prospect of millions of electric or hybrid cars on the streets in the next few years.

Some automakers are already making plans to have their electric cars emit some kind of noise, at least until they pass 10 miles an hour, when tires on pavement and other road noise are easy to hear.

Nissan is planning a futuristic whirring sound for its electrics — something like the hovering craft in "Blade Runner." The Chevrolet Volt, which will debut next year, also will emit a special noise, although drivers will be able to turn it off.

Congress also has gotten involved with the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, which ordered a federal agency to study the issue and consider recommending a minimum amount of sound for electrics and any other alternative-fueled vehicles in the future that make little noise.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers for more than a year has been studying the issue and considering how the industry should deal with it.

"We'd like them to sound like a car, not like a cell phone or German tank," Wunder said.


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