Quiet hybrids threaten the safety of blind pedestrians
For blind people, crossing the street is becoming even more of a challenge.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.Hybrids deliver better mileage and less pollution than traditional cars by switching between a gasoline engine and an electric motor. But when operating on the electric battery, especially when idling at a stop or running at low speeds, the engine in a hybrid is almost silent. A hybrid vehicle is generally quieter than a vacuum cleaner.”I’m an environmentalist, and I’m all for quiet cars,” says Mr. Osborn. “But it poses a particular problem for somebody who has no vision.”Blind pedestrians using a guide dog or cane are largely dependent on the sounds of traffic to cross streets safely. For a blind person, “it’s very important to be able to gather auditory and tactile cues from the environment,” says Sumara Shakeel, of Toms River, N.J. who is a rehabilitation teacher for the New Jersey Commission for the Blind.Hybrid cars became commercially available to mainstream consumers in 2000 and are gaining in popularity. Nationwide, registrations for new hybrids more than doubled to 199,148 in 2005 from 83,153 in 2004, according to R.L. Polk & Co., an automotive research firm. At least a dozen states and several cities are encouraging drivers to buy fuel-efficient hybrids by offering tax breaks and other incentives, and the vehicles are being added to municipal fleets. Still, the total 392,000 hybrids on the road reflect just over 1 percent of all new vehicle registrations in the U.S.The National Federation of the Blind, an advocacy group, says all hybrid vehicles should emit a sound while turned on and is calling on the auto industry to make changes. The group says the sound should be loud enough to be heard over the din of other ambient noise.Members of the NFB’s Committee on Automobile and Pedestrian Safety have discussed sound cues that hybrids could use to alert pedestrians, including a device built into the axle that could make a sound as the wheels rotate, or a sensor that blind travelers could carry that would indicate when a hybrid is in the vicinity. The committee has yet to have a formal meeting with auto industry representatives.Quiet cars pose a problem for not only those with limited vision, says the NFB’s Debbie Stein, but also for sighted pedestrians, cyclists and the elderly who rely on sound to gauge the position and speed of cars.While there are no national data on pedestrian injuries or deaths related to low-noise cars, the NFB argues that a link will be more discernible as quiet vehicles become more common. Police reports often don’t record what kind of automobile caused a pedestrian-vehicle collision, and the insurance industry says it doesn’t have those figures. In 2005, 4,881 pedestrians were killed nationwide, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an increase of about 2 percent since 2000.”We want to get ahead of this and not have to wait until five blind people end up seriously hurt or dead,” says Gary Wunder, who is on the NFB’s Committee on Automobile and Pedestrian Safety.Some businesses are taking action. Several guide dog schools are planning to use hybrid vehicles when training animals to acclimate them. Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc., with campuses in Oregon and California, uses electric golf carts to simulate the quiet cars.So far, advocacy groups’ pleas for louder hybrids have failed to generate much noise in automotive circles. A spokesman for the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers, an industry group, says he wasn’t aware of the issue. “We’re interested in hearing about the concerns of the blind community, and we’ll work with them to ensure that they’re addressed,” says alliance spokesman Charles Territo.Sev MacPete, founder of the Toyota Prius Club of San Diego, dismisses the idea that hybrids pose a safety threat. He says blind pedestrians are easy to spot because they usually have a special white cane with red tip. “And if you could say anything about hybrid drivers, they are more aware of their surroundings than other drivers,” Mr. MacPete says.Toyota spokesman Bill Kwong says he wasn’t aware of the issue and believes that the responsibility lies with drivers and pedestrians to watch out for each other. Mr. Kwong adds, “One of the benefits of the vehicles is that they don’t contribute to traffic noise.”
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