Hybrids are very quiet—practically silent at slower speeds. Blind people rely on cars to make at least a little noise to safely cross the street. That awkward combination has created an unexpected tension between the makers of hybrid cars, environmentalists and blind pedestrians.
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is calling on automakers to set a minimum sound standard for hybrids. But the carmakers and others involved with traffic safety are at a loss on how to respond. The Association of International Auto Manufacturers, the Society of Automotive Engineers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Federal Highway Administration are all aware of the problem, but there’s no immediate high-tech solution at hand.
Blind people don’t want consumers to ditch their hybrids in favor of gas-guzzlers. But Deborah Kent Stein, chairwoman of the National Federation of the Blind’s Committee on Automotive and Pedestrian Safety, said she would like hybrids to sound similar to cars with conventional engines.
Environmentalists and advocates working to reduce noise pollution don’t want to put blind people in harm’s way. Although NFB President Marc Maurer said he received an email from an environmentalist who suggested that the members of his group should be the first to drown when sea levels rise from global warming. "I don’t want to pick that way of going, but I don’t want to get run over by a quiet car, either," Maurer told the Associated Press.
With hybrids steadily gaining in popularity, and electric vehicles making a likely comeback in the next decade, the next big challenge for green transportation will be to produce a low-pollution vehicle which is quiet, but not too quiet. In the meantime, hybrid drivers could resort to low-tech solutions, like driving slowly (good for mileage), paying close attention to pedestrian traffic—and playing the radio or singing a song when approaching crosswalks.