When Silence Equals Death

Hybrid vehicles are good for the planet, but bad news for the visually impaired. What's a well-meaning lefty to do?

Louis Bryant is standing on a busy street corner in San Pablo, listening for traffic to tell him when it’s safe to cross. Bryant has extremely limited vision; he can see some shapes and some movement, if things are big and dark enough. But for the most part, he relies on a white cane and his ears. It’s not enough just to push the button on the traffic signal and wait for the chirping noise — the signal can tell him when the light is green, but not what traffic is actually doing. He needs to hear the cars for himself. He cranes forward as he tries to pick out his cue from a sea of ambient traffic sounds — he’s listening for the telltale pitch shift in engine noise when cars idling across the way begin to roll forward.

The nineteen-year-old, an avid computer-game programmer, is a student at San Pablo’s Living Skills Center for the Visually Impaired, a residential program that teaches independent living. A big part of that is learning to negotiate traffic. As Bryant arrives safely at the opposite curb without straying from the crosswalk, Patti Maffei, the program’s director and an orientation and mobility instructor, proudly calls out, “Pretty straight!”

But there’s one thing Bryant can’t hear no matter how hard he studies the traffic rhythms: hybrid cars. Their electric engines take over when the cars are stopped or traveling at low speeds, rendering them almost completely undetectable to people who rely on auditory cues. Hybrid models such as the Toyota Prius don’t even vibrate when they idle at stoplights; they’re as silent as sharks, and, some believe, nearly as dangerous for blind pedestrians. “It was because of them that I make my mistakes when crossing,” Bryant says. “Most of the time it’s somebody turning. I have the green light, so I cross, but I can’t hear him turning. Then usually I’m stopped by the instructor.”

“With background noise, they are almost impossible to hear,” Maffei agrees.

This largely unforeseen consequence of the rise of hybrid cars is enough to leave any well-meaning lefty deeply conflicted. Who doesn’t love eco-friendly cars? Then again, who wants to endanger blind people? When presented with this criticism, media relations folks from Honda and Toyota, which make America’s two top-selling hybrid lines, sounded as crushed as people who’ve just learned their new puppy ate a stranger’s bunny.

It’s of no surprise that this issue would arise in the Bay Area, home to an active disability-rights community and an ever-growing hybrid fleet. “The Bay Area and LA are way and above our two top markets for the hybrids,” says Cindy Knight, environmental communications administrator for Toyota. “It’s extremely popular in your corner of the world.” Californians have bought nearly a third — 52,166 — of the approximately 170,000 Priuses sold in the United States since they were introduced in 2000. The company says it’s on track to sell 100,000 Priuses this year, while rival Honda expects to sell 45,000 hybrid Civics, Accords, and Insights.

As yet, there’s no evidence these sometimes-silent vehicles have increased pedestrian casualties. But as more hybrids appear on the road, more people have voiced concerns. “They are a big problem for visually impaired people,” says Linda Myers, Northern California rep for the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired. Engine noise, she points out, not only tells blind pedestrians when a car is present, but also how fast it’s moving, its direction, and whether it’s turning. At big intersections, these pedestrians listen for a surge of traffic parallel to their crosswalk as a sign it’s safe to cross the street. At smaller crossings, they listen for the “all quiet.”

But with hybrids, all bets are off. “Virtually all of the electric hybrid cars don’t make noise when they’re at idle, so you don’t know they’re there and you’re taken off guard when they start up,” says Deborah Kent Stein, who chairs the committee on automobile and pedestrian safety for the National Federation of the Blind. As a simple test, Stein, who is blind, once asked a Prius-owning neighbor to start it up while she listened for the ignition noise. After a long wait, she asked why he hadn’t started the car yet. The neighbor incredulously told her he’d already driven past her three times.

Visually impaired people also use engine noise to navigate crosswalks — a row of idling engines helps them steer directly toward the opposite curb. They also use it to determine how long it’s been since the light has changed by listening to the “near-parallel” cars — the closest ones in the lane headed their way — transition from idle to drive. But if the first couple of cars happen to be hybrids, they can throw off the pedestrian’s timing. “If the first car is a hybrid, I won’t hear it,” Stein says. “I’ll hear the second and think I have more time to cross, that the light has just changed.”

Chirping traffic signals can help orient blind pedestrians and tell them when the signal is green, but drivers often run red lights or make right turns into crosswalks while the signal is still chirping. The sound can also be drowned out by traffic or confused with other ambient noises — “They put a bird overhead to tell the blind person when to walk!” Myers exclaims. And of course, hybrids are in quiet mode in many other places, too: when cruising parking lots or garages, for example, or exiting driveways.

Advocates for the visually impaired point out that the industrywide push towards quieter cars — gas guzzlers included — could pose problems even for sighted people, who rely on auditory cues more often than they probably realize. They fear more quiet cars on the road will mean more accidents, particularly for the elderly and kids. “Frequently before you see a car, you hear it,” Myers notes. “And that’s what makes you turn and look for them.”

These concerns are not entirely new. The Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired has been passing resolutions on the topic since at least 1996, when quiet all-electric vehicles began to appear. The association has asked transportation authorities to consider how to add alert noises to quiet cars. More recently, the National Federation of the Blind, led by Stein, began contacting automakers specifically to discuss solutions for hybrids. They’re hoping for a low-tech fix, perhaps an exterior add-on loud enough to alert pedestrians, yet not annoy the driver — say, a wheel or axle attachment that would make a ticking noise. Stein says automakers have shown little concern to date. “Most of the car companies I have written to have just not responded at all,” she says. The consumer safety groups she contacted also blew her off because she has no casualty statistics. So far, the only company that has met with her is Ford, which introduced the Escape Hybrid SUV last year.

Honda spokespeople admit they are not currently researching solutions for this problem, and Toyota reps couldn’t recall being contacted by Stein. But when the National Federation of the Blind approached Toyota six years ago regarding electric vehicles, the automaker decided to do nothing, Toyota spokeswoman Knight recalls. “We kind of came to the viewpoint that the most effective protection for anyone in a crosswalk, regardless of their ability, is the attentiveness of the driver,” she says. “It has much more to do with the safety of the pedestrians than anything the automaker could stick on the car.”

Visually impaired pedestrians are already forced to rely on safe drivers more than they’d probably like — all it will take, after all, is one careless hybrid owner to give Stein that casualty statistic. Hybrids have turned out to be far more successful than electric cars ever were, and yet automakers have never resolved criticisms raised years ago about the quiet engines. “It makes me angry that there was no planning for it,” Stein says. “The feeling was that something would be done, somebody would do something — and actually, nobody did.”

Maybe they will now. Toyota, at least, says it’s willing to start discussing safety issues for the visually impaired. “If they come and talk to us with their concerns, we can work something out, absolutely,” Knight says. “We definitely want to do the right thing by the community.” Likewise, even those most concerned about silent motors acknowledge that hybrids are doing something right for the planet. They just wish they’d do it a little more loudly.

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