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A step towards the end of silent vehicles on UK roads

The Department for Transport (DfT) has announced an important step towards the end of silent vehicles on UK roads. But what are the risks when vehicles are silent, what does the DfT announcement mean in practice, and does it go far enough?

Exterior picture of the Houses of Parliament in London

The Department for Transport announcement

In their announcement the DfT made clear that: "from 1 July 2019 all manufacturers must install an acoustic sound system in new types of quiet electric and hybrid electric vehicles to improve road safety."

Why we need vehicles to make noise

When electric or hybrid vehicles travel at speeds below 12 miles per hour (20 kilometres per hour) they emit so little noise that they have earnt the nickname ‘silent vehicles’. This lack of noise has an unintended safety implication because it makes these vehicles very hard to detect, particularly for blind and partially sighted people who rely on listening to detect approaching vehicles. The sound that a vehicle makes when it is moving is critically important, to enable people who cannot see to judge when to step out to cross a road, or through a shared use area.

The future – Audible Vehicle Alert System (AVAS)

From July 2019, new types of electric and hybrid vehicles must emit audio signals for pedestrian safety, in order to be approved. The audio signal system is called Audible Vehicle Alert System, or AVAS. By 1 July 2021, all new vehicles irrespective of their type must be fitted with AVAS.

The added sound will be similar to that made by a combustion engine and must have a minimum volume of 56 decibels when standing 50 metres from the vehicle. So long as this added sound is directional, distinctive and loud enough to be detectable from background cityscape noise, we think this is a good thing.

Blind and partially sighted advocacy groups including RNIB, Guide Dogs, the European Blind Union (EBU) and the World Blind Union (WBU) have campaigned for mandatory AVAS for nearly a decade. And the recent DfT announcement marks the coming into effect of an EU Regulation passed in April 2014 (Regulation 540 / 2014), after sustained pressure and campaigning.

Remaining questions

On the surface, this is all good news, but the question remains: have the Department for Transport gone far enough? Two issues stand out. Firstly, will drivers be able to pause the AVAS, and secondly what about silent vehicles already on the road?

The current regulation allows for AVAS to be temporarily deactivated by the driver through a pause function, “if judged necessary”. We think it is really important that drivers can’t disable a safety sound, precisely because it is a safety sound. The European Commission is currently working on a draft Regulation to ban the pause switch, but we need to know if the UK Government will match this.

There is also the problem of the electric vehicles already on the road, which the new regulation does not currently seem to cover. In 2018 there were approximately 1.35 million electric vehicles on European roads (according to the Electrical World Sales Database), and the majority of these will not be fitted with AVAS. One possible solution would be for governments to provide special funds for retrofitting existing electric vehicles with AVAS and making it compulsory for all silent vehicles purchased with public money (such as buses) to have AVAS.

Find out more and get in touch

If you want to find out more, the EBU’s 'Silent Cars and AVAS Questions and Answers' briefing explains the key issues in further detail. It is available for download from the EBU website.

We want to know what you think about silent vehicles and the new regulation which has come into force today. Have you had a close call with a silent vehicle? Do you think the new regulation goes far enough?

Get in touch to let us know, by calling 0303 123 9999 or email [email protected].