The Noise about Quiet Cars
by B. T. Kimbrough
Salem, Oregon
Gary C. Norman
Baltimore, Maryland

Sherlock Holmes once keenly observed, "If you want to solve a problem, walk around." For many blind and visually impaired pedestrians, walking around is becoming increasingly difficult because traffic noise, the once reliable key to safe mobility, is growing noticeably less reliable with the popularity of quiet cars. The periodic inflation in the price of gasoline and the global desire to go green are spurring innovative approaches to transportation. One of these innovations is comprised of electric and fossil-based locomotion. Such hybrid vehicles utilize a quiet electric motor when moving slowly or standing still and transfer to a noisier conventional gasoline engine at higher speeds. Hybrids potentially benefit the environment, but because these cars emit little or no sound at times, they create a sense of uncertainty for pedestrians who have vision impairments.

Proposed solutions include: research into the nature of sound localization, mandatory standards of minimum noise levels for motorized vehicles, suggested additions to traditional orientation and mobility training, voluntary adaptations to make quiet cars noisier, and devices which can detect hybrids and simultaneously alert blind pedestrians through a small receiver. British carmaker, Group Lotus, has installed an experimental sound generator into a Toyota Prius. This development, which has been widely publicized, consists of a digital recording of a conventional gasoline engine played through speakers mounted at the front of the car. As the quiet electric motor accelerates, the digital sound intensifies. At about 20 miles per hour when the conventional engine switches on, the artificial sound fades away. Researchers at Stanford University have designed a similar system. In the Stanford model, artificial engine sounds are directed to different speakers depending on whether the car is turning or moving straight ahead. Ingenious as these technological solutions might be, they would certainly raise production costs. Without corresponding incentives, the prospect for them to be incorporated into new or existing vehicles is low.

Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS) have been overlooked among recommended solutions to the quiet car dilemma. While APS cannot directly point out the presence of a hybrid, these adaptations to traffic lights allow a blind pedestrian to acquire a level of information similar to that experienced by a sighted person at a signalized intersection. At busy intersections which are APS-equipped, a pedestrian with little or no vision, but good hearing, receives independent confirmation of "walk" signals, regardless of what noise indicators the parallel traffic provides.

So far, most legislative efforts have focused on studies to develop a standard such as a minimum sound level which might be required of every motorized vehicle on public streets. Several state legislatures have debated the safety implications of hybrid vehicles, and last summer, the California General Assembly passed a bill to study the matter, only to have it vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the regular session of the 2008 Maryland General Assembly, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) proved successful in its lobbying efforts. The General Assembly passed legislation authorizing a taskforce to study the issue. In December 2008, the taskforce, which consisted of representatives from both the NFB and the American Council of the Blind (ACB), transmitted its report to the Maryland General Assembly.

Both the NFB and the ACB have sought to focus public attention on the need for federal legislation on this issue. In 2008, the NFB hosted a press conference coinciding with the congressional introduction of the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, legislation that would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to identify a minimum standard safe sound level for quiet cars. The Act stalled in committee because of opposition from anti-noise organizations. Thanks to the efforts of the leadership of NFB, New York Congressman, Edolphus Towns, reintroduced the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, (H.R. 734), in late January 2009.

Not everyone agrees quiet cars are a hazard. Chris Tinto, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs at Toyota, thinks too much is being made of the safety issue considering that no blind pedestrians are known to have suffered serious injury or death as a result of a hybrid vehicle. At a 2008 hearing of the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration Tinto commented: "Even if the hybrids sound as loud as every other vehicle, there wouldn't be any fewer traffic deaths."

Nevertheless, early research on traffic noise as an orientation tool has already produced some sobering numbers. According to a press release, Lawrence Rosenblum, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, has demonstrated in repeated comparative tests that pedestrians have to be 40 percent closer to a hybrid to hear its electric engine than is required to hear the gasoline engine of a conventional car. So, for example, a conventional engine which is audible in first gear 20 feet away would only be heard at 12 feet if the vehicle is a hybrid.

Many editorials in newspapers and postings on blogs have urged motorists to exercise more caution and blind people to be more careful instead of imposing unfunded mandates on the automobile industry. Suggestions of this kind fail to acknowledge the consequences of driver distractions such as talking on cell phones, eating and even putting on makeup. For a blind pedestrian using a white cane, these suggestions are uninformed because white cane users receive training to detect stationary objects at a distance of three to four feet. Obviously, contact with a moving vehicle is best avoided. It has been suggested that a small alerting device be designed that could be carried by white cane users to receive signals from a nearby hybrid warning of immanent danger before direct contact is made. Determining how this technology might be developed may provide material for a future article. In the absence of technology or legislation to provide reliable nonvisual adaptations to hybrids, extreme caution--especially in parking lots and driveways-- while not recommended as a viable solution, is essential.

Many schools that train dog guides and blind handlers to travel as teams have purchased hybrid vehicles. This gives trainers and students, both canine and human, the opportunity to get up close and personal with a hybrid, and learn its characteristics without risking life and limb. Does the dog's ability to see give the handler an advantage in coping with quiet cars? Emily Simone thinks it does. Simone is a licensed dog guide instructor and serves as senior field manager at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California. Simone said she believes that under ideal circumstances, dog guides, "possess the ability to identify vehicles and render a judgment call about the safety of a crossing."

For a consumer perspective, we turned to Ed and Toni Eames, a married couple who have each worked with five dog guides, and who reside in Fresno, California, an area which boasts one of the heaviest concentrations of hybrid vehicles in the United States. Ed, who is the president of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, commented, "The reality is that the dog is trained to avoid moving objects, so that avoidance behavior I think is a slight advantage in the silent car movement."

Toni indicated that even with the advantages of dog guides, crossing streets is becoming increasingly complicated. "When I grew up, it was very simple. All the traffic stopped in front of you; all the traffic moved on the side of you--and I find in general a level of discomfort when crossing streets with right on red and turning lanes. It's very difficult to stand there and absolutely for sure know it's time to step off the curb, and then hope someone doesn't come through a red light, or hope that a silent car doesn't get you," she said. "So I am definitely not as comfortable in general crossing streets as I was when life was simpler."

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