President's Message: The World Blind Union and "Silent" Cars

by Mitch Pomerantz

In April 2011, I was asked to assume the chair of the World Blind Union's (WBU's) Mobility and Transport Working Group.  Some of you may recall that under the auspices of the North American/Caribbean Region, ACB drafted a resolution addressing our growing concern over "silent cars" which the WBU ultimately passed at the seventh quadrennial meeting in Geneva, Switzerland in August 2008.  This month's column is the draft paper which resulted from that resolution.

The World Blind Union (WBU) is a non-governmental organization representing the interests of millions of blind and visually impaired persons worldwide.  As part of the WBU's 2008-'12 Workplan, the Mobility and Transport (M&T) Working Group was charged with drafting a position statement on the issue of hybrid/silent vehicles, including strategies to inform and educate WBU members and to offer approaches for addressing this growing problem.  This paper outlines WBU's position relative to the increasing prominence of such vehicles.  It draws heavily from one previously prepared by the European Blind Union (EBU), and we wish to acknowledge their efforts.

Since the mid-2000s, hybrid and electric vehicles have become popular among an increasingly environmentally sophisticated population concerned over air pollution and its impact on health, rising fuel prices (both gasoline and diesel), and the need for new directions for a struggling automobile industry.  Blind and partially sighted people around the world welcome this trend as long as the technology does not jeopardize our safe and independent mobility.

Hybrid vehicles operate on a fuel-powered engine when driving above 20 miles per hour (32 kilometers per hour) and revert to a virtually silent electric motor when idling or traveling at slower speed.  All-electric cars such as the Chevrolet Volt and the Smart Car operate silently without the usual engine noise, regardless of speed.  Such vehicles pose a serious threat of injury or death to persons relying mainly on their hearing to assess whether it is safe to cross streets or in other hazardous areas (e.g., parking lots).  Other pedestrians such as children, seniors, runners, cyclists, or merely inattentive walkers are also at increased risk.  In their current stage of development, hybrid and electric vehicles are not fully in line with "universal design" principles.

According to experiments conducted by researchers at the University of California-Riverside, vehicles operating in electric mode can be hard to hear below 20 MPH (32 KPH).  Above that speed the sound of tires and air flowing over the vehicle start to make it audible.  Researchers determined that a Toyota Prius needed to be as much as 65 percent closer to test subjects than a car with a standard internal-combustion engine before testers could judge its direction correctly.  During the tests, the Prius was not heard until it was 10 feet (3.3 meters) from blindfolded volunteers.  A recent study authorized by the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 12 states showed a 50 percent higher rate of accidents involving pedestrians for hybrids than for standard internal-combustion vehicles.

As recently as 2010, serious research into what would constitute an appropriate warning sound commenced.  Noise generators for "quiet cars" have been studied by Warwick University in the United Kingdom.  In the U.S., General Motors has been conducting tests using sounds which closely imitate those of gasoline-powered engines.  Fiat, Lotus and Nissan have recognized the problem and have also been involved in various stages of research and testing.

Japan has looked into developing guidelines, or mandating minimum noise levels for such vehicles.  In 2010, the two major national consumer advocacy organizations of the blind in the U.S. -- the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind -- collaborated on federal legislation, passed and signed into law, mandating that minimum sound standards be developed and implemented.

While the WBU is supportive of "green" vehicles, we also believe that further research may be needed to investigate the safety implications for pedestrians and to thoroughly explore adequate solutions.  A balanced approach, preserving the safety of all pedestrians while also reducing noise pollution, is a laudable goal.  However, there appears to be consensus within the blind/visually impaired community that sounds used to announce the presence of hybrid/electric vehicles must simulate, as closely as possible, those made by the internal-combustion engine.  There is the additional belief that one standard sound, rather than a sound representing each manufacturer, is desirable.  Today more than ever, it also remains vital to promote safe driving practices such as driving more slowly and refraining from texting or using cellular telephones while operating a motor vehicle.  The challenge is now to identify a technology that is both environmentally friendly and safe for pedestrians, thus benefiting everyone concerned.

Since adoption of the WBU resolution on this subject in 2008, we have seen progress toward its first imperative which called upon "all regions where large numbers of vehicles are in use to advocate for research into technologies and standards to identify independently vehicles while traversing streets or other areas where vehicles may be encountered."  The second imperative, which called upon "the United Nations and national governments to adopt a standard of sound adequate to alert pedestrians to the presence, speed, and direction of vehicles within the environment," will require considerably more grassroots effort.

The World Blind Union urges all regions to take the following two actions:

  1. Encourage member organizations within each region to disseminate this paper as widely as possible in order to educate blind and visually impaired persons regarding the growing hazard that hybrid/electric vehicles pose to safe and independent mobility; and
  2. Encourage those member organizations to make this issue a "top priority" in their advocacy agendas including advocacy to government officials and those persons who regularly interact with the United Nations.