Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

New law mandates more noise from hybrid and electric cars

January 6, 2011 - 01:34 PM
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Those hushed hybrid and electric cars will be getting a bit louder in the future. This week President Obama signed the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act into law. Written largely to protect blind pedestrians, the act will require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to set a minimum noise level that hybrid and electric cars will have to meet.

If you’ve ever watched a Ford Fusion idle at a light or make a slow turn, you know that the gas engine isn’t running and the car is all but silent. So you can imagine how unnerving those cars would be if you couldn’t see. “We got a lot of feedback from members saying they had close calls with these cars,” says Chris Danielsen, spokesperson for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).

Though Danielsen couldn’t think of a case in which someone had been maimed or killed, the federation had heard stories of the blind having their feet run over or their white canes broken. A lot of members told them that their friends owned hybrid cars and they were disturbed by how quiet they were.

“Our position was, let’s get out in front of this before it’s situation where people are being injured,” says Danielsen.

In all likelihood, this new manufactured noise will be generated by something other than the engine. A few parameters have been laid down. For one, the sound has to be automatic and not driver-activated, since that would put the responsibility on the driver. Also, the sound has to be constant when the car is at low speeds. In the end, it will probably be some kind of device that kicks in when a hybrid or electric car is driving below a certain speed.

Despite some initial skepticism, the auto lobby was generally a good partner in the legislative effort, says Danielsen. Some auto industry reps even came to the NFB headquarters in Baltimore, donned some shades, and tried walking with the white cane to understand the blind perspective. Virtually all the big auto companies lobbied on the bill, according to OpenSecrets.org, and ultimately the NFB got the support of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Association of International Automobile Manufacturers.

Despite the new law, it could be a while before the cars actually get louder. NHTSA has 18 months to start the regulatory process and another 18 months to get through it; then there’s an implementation period for auto manufacturers that could be three years. So all told, it might be five years or more before the changes actually trickle down to the car lots.

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