Monday, March 31

Pedestrians and quiet cars

Greetings. Below is an important article about quiet cars. This could be a growing problem for the blind or anyone that crosses streets by walking. I recognize that quiet cars means less noise in the environment. However, I also know that if I can't hear a car at an intersection, then that could pose problems for me as a blind pedestrian, or anyone who may not see the hazard, for whatever reason. Perhaps its a jogger enjoying their iPod too much, a mother with several kids, someone pulling or pushing a cart of some sort, etc.

The article references that Guide Dogs for the Blind in California has acquired a hybrid car to use in their training. A coworker recently told me that The Seeing Eye, a similar guide dog school in New Jersey, has also added a quiet car to their training of dogs and students. For those that may not be aware, these are the two largest and most well known, and two of the best, guide dog schools in the U.S. Having them add quiet cars to their training activities will hopefully be the beginning step in preparing the blind, the sighted, and other guide dog schools, in the awareness of quiet cars. Enjoy.

From the Los Angeles Times

Blind pedestrians may not hear hybrid cars
Cars that are quiet while in electric mode may provide
no warning to pedestrians.
By Martin Zimmerman
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

March 29, 2008

Are hybrid cars too quiet for their own good?

Jana Littrell certainly thinks so. Littrell, who is
blind, was walking through a bank parking lot in the
East Bay town of Albany a year ago when her foot
was run over by a Toyota Prius backing out of a
parking space. She wasn't injured and the driver
apologized effusively, she recalled. But the
shook her up.

"It has definitely put me more on my guard," said
Littrell, who teaches Braille to newly blind adults.
"But I don't know how much good that's going to do
me if I can't hear the car coming."

Concerns are growing that quiet-running hybrids such
as the Prius pose a hazard to pedestrians, especially
the 1.3 million Americans who are legally blind.
The problem occurs when the cars are running at very
low speeds on electric power, making about as much
noise as a golf cart.

"There's this silent-but-deadly zone where we cannot
hear these cars," said Bryan Bashin, a Sacramento
management consultant. "We're not just worried about
blind people. It's a hazard to pets, joggers, young
children, cyclists, people who have their back turned.
. . ."

Federal traffic safety regulators report that no
deaths or serious injuries have been attributed to
quiet-running hybrids. But an ongoing study at UC
has produced some of the first scientific evidence
that hybrids may pose a hazard to pedestrians,
according to preliminary results to be released today.

Meanwhile, the issue is drawing attention from the
auto industry, state lawmakers and federal regulators.
It even spawned at least one Silicon Valley start-up
that's trying to develop an audible pedestrian warning
system for hybrids.

Bashin, who is sightless, is working with the National
Federation of the Blind to push legislation that could
eventually require installation of "noise
emitting" devices on hybrids and other vehicles that
run at least part of the time on electric power.

That prospect doesn't sit well with some car owners.
The message board at,
a website for hybrid enthusiasts, has seen lively
debates over the issue. In one recent post, a Toyota
Camry hybrid owner wrote that "the world around us
is getting louder and along come hybrids and WHAM!
They get blasted by a group claiming they are too

The debate comes as hybrids are becoming increasingly
common. More than 350,000 were sold in the U.S. last
year, according to marketing information firm
J.D. Power and Associates.

Prius owner Sarah Forth of Silver Lake knows the issue
from both sides.

"I noticed the cars creeping up on me when I was
walking around," Forth recalled. "After I got one, I
put two and two together and realized, 'I'm a road
hazard in this car.' "

The vehicles are powered by a combination of gasoline
and electricity and are prized for their fuel economy.
They're particularly popular in California,
which buys almost half the hybrids sold in the U.S. by
Toyota Motor Corp., the leading hybrid maker.

And coming soon: cars powered only by electricity that
produce very little engine noise at any speed
(although, as with hybrids, air flow and tire noise
would become noticeable above 20 or 25 miles per

Currently, most of the concern is directed at the
top-selling Prius and vehicles such as the Camry that
use similar gasoline-electric engines. The Honda
Civic, the No. 4-selling hybrid in America, is noisier
because it employs a system that almost never switches
into electric-only mode.

The UC Riverside study has found that test subjects
had to be 40% closer to silent-running hybrids than to
cars with traditional gasoline engines before
they could hear them.

"Our preliminary findings could mean that there is an
added danger with hybrid cars, particularly at
intersections and parking lots," said Lawrence
a psychology professor doing the study.

Toyota engineers are looking for a solution, but have
yet to come up with one.

"Vehicle safety and pedestrian safety are at the top
of our list," spokesman Bill Kwong said. "At this
point, we're trying to balance the needs of
people with other sociological concerns such as noise

One problem has been in isolating exactly what sounds
most people associate with an approaching vehicle,
such as the engine revving, the fan belt, tire
noise or other sounds. Artificial warning cues "like
chirping or chimes are not identified by test subjects
as a vehicle at all," the automaker said.

Interim solutions include training guide dogs for the
blind to detect cars by sight as well as sound.
Training schools such as Guide Dogs for the Blind
in San Rafael and Guide Dogs of the Desert near Palm
Springs have added Priuses to their training regimens
partly in response to concerns about hybrid

Longer term, the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration has promised to launch a wide-ranging
investigation into the issue and several states are
considering legislation. A bill soon to be headed to
the governor of Maryland would create a task force to
conduct a study and recommend solutions.

A group of Stanford University students has formed a
company -- Santa Clara-based Enhanced Vehicle
Acoustics -- that is developing an after-market
for Toyota hybrids that goes beyond simply making a
noise to alert nearby pedestrians. For example, by
linking to the vehicle's computer, the system would
be able to direct its sounds to the right or left to
warn pedestrians that the car is about to make a turn.

Bashin and other advocates for the blind are
sympathetic to complaints from hybrid fans. But, he
asked, "what am I supposed to do, stay home?"

Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times

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