Today’s tip is a safety tip cautioning readers to be aware of the "dangers" of hybrid and electric vehicles to pedestrians. Last week, I was almost hit by a Prius in a health food store parking lot. I can imagine the headline: "Environmentalist run over by a hybrid vehicle." Ironic, eh?
My near-encounter with the Prius occurred because the car was running on its electric motor, thus making the car virtually silent. As the Prius backed out of its parking space, I was caught by surprise and realized how much I rely on my ears to warn me of traffic. We tell children to "look both ways and listen" for cars when crossing streets, but as our fleet moves toward hybrid vehicles (and hopefully electric ones, too), we will need to adjust which senses we rely on to keep us safe in parking lots and crossing roads.
I am not the only one to be startled by a low noise car. In particular, hybrid vehicles running on their electric motors especially affect blind people, who rely on their sense of hearing in traffic. According to the Wall Street Journal,
"Michael Osborn, a blind marketing consultant from Laguna Beach, Calif., and his guide dog, Hastings, were in the middle of an intersection one morning last April when the yellow Lab stopped short. Mr. Osborn took the cue and halted — just in time to feel the breeze from a car passing right in front of them. ‘Half an inch and it would have hit us … it wasn’t making any noise,’ says Mr. Osborn, 50, who has been blind for 12 years. Witnesses say the car was a Toyota Prius, a hybrid vehicle."
The National Federation of the Blind is advocating hybrid and electric vehicles emit a sound when turned on, and many guide dog schools are now including hybrid vehicles in their training course. The proposed sound device would alert a sensor carried by the vision impaired to alert them of a hybrid in the vicinity. In response to the concern, Denise Morrissey, a spokeswoman for Toyota Motor Sales USA stated, "The [industry] trend is toward quiet powertrains in all sorts of vehicles. That trend has raised the need for other drivers and pedestrians to increase caution and to be more aware of the surroundings."
I don’t know what the solution is, and I certainly like less noise pollution. The sound of an electric powered car is beautiful in its quietude, and I can only imagine how our city streets would sound if the electric vehicle had not been "killed." As pedestrians, we must be more aware and mindful of our surroundings as more and more hybrid vehicles are on the road. For drivers of hybrid or electric vehicles, pay special attention around pedestrians, especially the blind, who may not be aware of your presence. As our streets become quieter and our awareness grows, perhaps we will once again be able to hear the birds’ songs in the bustling city.
Tad Chef says
There is a very easy solution to this. Expensive cars nowadays warn the driver already if there is an obstacle in the way with a “bleep”. Why not also warn the pedestrians with a bleep? You could even sell ring tones for cars!
As an owner of one of these vehicles (which I love, BTW), I have a suggestion: Maybe you should be more observant of all cars in parking lots. Why single out hybrids?? Any new car runs quietly, as well as those which are properly maintained. I have almost run over people walking in parking lots, who appear from nowhere walking between other parked cars, sometimes chatting on a cell phone, or those who walk in the middle of the road in the lot. For the record, this has happened in any type of vehicle, from my first “clunker”, a 1976 Plymouth Duster, to my recent car. I drive a red car, with headlights on. I wonder how anyone could NOT see my car. Let’s be careful out there…
Don’t forget this hazard also!!!
Unregistered User says
Paige: Way to look stupid and insensitive. “Maybe you should be more observant of all cars in parking lots” — tell that to the blind person who was almost hit. *boggle*
Why does this “issue” always come up in connection to electrics and hybrids? I actually find the whine of electric gear-trains more noticeable than the soft fluttering noise of a well-soundproofed internal-combustion vehicle – especially against the background of nearby traffic and city noise.
The AMA recognizes that most pedestrians can’t be relied on to detect the sound of modern cars of any engine type. For this reason, in their defensive driving course, they suggest sounding your horn before putting your car in motion (especially reverse, especially in a parking lot).
I have never been able to _rely_ on car noise as a substitute for using my vision to detect cars, and I have better than average hearing. The weaknesses of depending only on acoustic cues explain why the visually impaired use cross-walks instead of jaywalking arbitrarily.
No well-kept, modern vehicle makes enough noise to be _heard_ far enough away for the driver to brake to a stop before hitting a pedestrian who is relying only on sounds for detecting traffic. This has to do with noise-pollution regulations. Most people didn’t want to listen to loud engines on the roadways in the past, they will not likely choose to listen to “car-tone” equipped automobiles burbling, buzzing or yammering past, either.
Even in a parking lot, where cars can frequently stop over very short distances, most car noises don’t win out over wind, weather or even nearby human activity.
As for making modern road crossings safe for the visually impaired, there are (hopefully) no blind drivers out there, so it falls to the person with the better eyes to spot and react to the pedestrian. This is part of being a vigilant driver.
It can be quite startling for anyone to see a hybrid car start moving without the sound of a revving engine first. But the blind certainly have a particular cause to fear the silence.
At the same time, I agree with crosius. Modern cars are very quiet on the road these days. You’re more likely to hear the road noise, the sound of the tire on the road, than you are the engine. Unfortunately for his argument, hybrids tend to have low resistance tires that are quieter than on most cars.
One suggestion I saw recently was for rumble strips to be put out next to crosswalks. That would certainly be less expensive than equipping every blind person and every ‘quiet’ vehicle with some sort of sensor device.
It’s obviously not a perfect solution, but I doubt there is one.
Wouldn’t the rumble strips have to start far enough away to give the car time to stop, and continue in some fashion (perhaps with diminishing spacing to create a rising tone) right up to the crosswalk in question? If the ribbing only existed at some fixed point near the intersection, cars between the crossing and the textured region would not exhibit acoustic cues. On a road with 50km/hr traffic, this would be many meters of textured roadway, which would be more expensive and difficult to maintain than smooth ashphalt. Car tires tend to damage surface features on pavement.
Also, ribbed or ridged road surfaces compromise breaking distance, so you’d have to make the ridged region even larger to allow adequate braking distance _and_ you’d be compromising the braking distance of every vehicle approaching the intersection – which is exactly when and where quick braking response and good traction are most desirable.
i am rather astonished that more (actually, ANY) responsibility is not being placed on the motorist here!! isn’t the person piloting the two-ton hunk of metal supposed to be making sure they don’t run into/over their fellow human beings??
Jim Sum says
I think hybrid cars are louder than bicycles; should we add sound-generating devices to bikes as well? Getting hit by a bike going 20 mph is no picnic; I don’t know how we have survived all these years.
a bicyclist traveling at 20 mph should ring their bell when approaching a group of pedestrians, or, better yet, slow down. no excuse there either.
I’m thinking of a new slogan:
Dead people expected someone else to solve their problems.
“As pedestrians, we must be more aware and mindful of our surroundings as more and more hybrid vehicles are on the road.”
Forgive me but that comment strikes me somewhat as blaming the pedestrians. I’ve always been told that pedestrians have the right of way. And where I currently live (Japan), in all cases it is the driver’s fault for not paying attention to the road & pedestrians.
Furthermore, a small “beep” sound on a quiet car does not strike me as “noise pollution”.
(Though I’m still wondering how “green” hybrids are, because not all electricity is made via green methods still…burning gas to create electricity is still popular and most people don’t have a choice on which power source to use)
Uncle B says
New etiquette for the new paradigm!