Silent and deadly? The electric car debate

Post date: 
Tuesday, 28 November 2017
Photo of an electric car's headlight

Connect community member and campaigner, Elise Crayton, shares her thoughts about the potential risk of electric and hybrid vehicles to people with sight loss.

Silent vehicles are a topic of much debate at the moment. Are they an exciting innovation for our cities? Or do they present yet another harmful design to the communities who live alongside them?
 
There are some attractive features of a silent vehicle, in theory. Electric and hybrid cars are more environmentally friendly than the typical petrol or diesel vehicles – but they also don’t omit the rumbling engine sound we have become so accustomed to hearing on our streets. Instead, they often sound more like a subtle hum, eliminating some of the noise pollution in cities. No more will be the days of avoiding strolling along busy urban roads or living against loud, imposing commuter belts. But what are the risks?
 

Pedestrians are 40 per cent more likely to be quiet hybrid or electric car than by one with a petrol or diesel engine in the UK (Guide Dogs, 2015).

The stark reality is that these silent vehicles may not provide the exciting and welcomed innovation first assumed. There are numerous emerging articles warning of the substantial safety issues these cars present. Certainly for someone like me who is registered blind, the notion of a silent motorized vehicle on the road is terrifying. Bicycles already pose a sufficient threat!
 

Research shows that some electric and hybrid vehicles can’t be heard until one second before impact with a pedestrian (University of California, 2008).

Picture this scenario: you’re walking down a small side road that is light with traffic. All around you are typical sounds of a suburban town; trains go by on a nearby train line, airplanes fly overhead to the local airport and adjoining this quiet side road is the busy main road that runs through your town, loaded with traffic rich noise. You go to cross this small side road. With the limited sight you have you look left and right, listening out for vehicles. You think it is clear and attempt to cross the road. How wrong you were… You’ve walked directly into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Here comes the headline: it’s a normal, audible vehicle – not a silent one. Can you imagine how much more challenging it is to try and listen out for these?!
 
Sure, some of the surrounding traffic noise may subside as technology advances, but the general chatter of transport and other pedestrians won’t. For me, with my limited vision, it takes a lot of guts to step into that road because I can never be sure what’s coming or if they’ve spotted me – whether it’s a car or bike. What will the world be like when people have to contend with roads where they can no longer hear the oncoming danger? This affects more than just people with sight loss – consider small children, cyclists or people just distracted by their phone.
 
So what needs to change? Maybe amendments have to be made to the design of electric and hybrid vehicles to make them emit some form of audible sound while they’re on the move (or certainly in areas where pedestrians are likely to cross the road). Let’s be frank, it’s quite comforting to step out your door and hear the familiar rumble of car engines, well at least it is for me.
 
Richard Holmes, RNIB’s UK Parliamentary and Public Affairs Manager, says: “This situation has been building for a while, coming as it does on the back of concerns expressed about hybrid vehicles, such as those produced by Toyota. It is vital at this time of development, that the audio needs of blind and partially sighted people are fully integrated. It is not going to be acceptable for development to take place, then trying to make the least-worst outcome from this situation.
 
“It is essential that silent vehicles make a noise, i.e. engine noise, and it is equally important that this noise is set by manufacturers at a level easily heard. Furthermore, this must be something which is fitted and cannot be removed or switched off thus defeating the whole point of the adaptation.”
 

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