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Thu, Oct 04, 2007 - Page 10 News List

Hybrid cars unsafe for the blind

TOO QUIET The US' National Federation of the Blind is not against using vehicles that are better for the environment, but wants hybrid models to make some noise


Gas-electric hybrid vehicles, the status symbol for the environmentally conscientious, are coming under attack from a group that does not drive: the blind.

Because hybrids make virtually no noise at lower speeds when they run on electric power, blind people say they pose a hazard to those who rely on their ears to determine whether it is safe to cross the street or walk through a parking lot.

"I'm used to being able to get sound cues from my environment and negotiate accordingly. I hadn't imagined there was anything I really wouldn't be able to hear," said Deborah Kent Stein, who chairs the National Federation of the Blind's Committee on Automotive and Pedestrian Safety.

"We did a test, and I discovered, to my great dismay, that I couldn't hear it," Stein said.

The tests, admittedly unscientific, involved people standing in parking lots or on sidewalks and being asked to signal when they heard several different hybrid models drive by.

"People were making comments like: `When are they going to start the test?' And it would turn out that the vehicle had already done two or three laps around the parking lot," Stein said.

As gas prices continue to rise, along with concern about harmful emissions, hybrid cars are increasing in popularity.

New hybrid vehicle registrations increased more than 49 percent across the US in the first seven months of this year compared with the same period last year, according to R.L. Polk & Co, an automotive research firm.

Toyota has sold nearly 460,000 of the most popular hybrid model, the Prius, since it hit the market in 2000, according to the company, which pegs total hybrid sales at just over 900,000.

Officials with the National Federation of the Blind are quick to point out that they are not advocating a return to non-hybrid vehicles. They just want the fuel-efficient hybrids to make some noise.

NFB president Marc Maurer said he had received an e-mail 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 said.

NFB, the leading advocacy group for 1.3 million legally blind people in the US, made pleas to the auto industry and to federal and state agencies, with little concrete success so far.

Manufacturers are aware of the problem but have made no promises.

Toyota is studying the issue, said Bill Kwong, a spokesman for Toyota Motor Sales USA.

The Association of International Auto Manufacturers, Inc, a trade group, is also studying the problem, along with a committee established by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

The groups are considering "the possibility of setting a minimum noise level standard for hybrid vehicles," said Mike Camissa, the safety director for the manufacturers' association.

Officials with two separate arms of the US Department of Transportation -- the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration -- said they are aware of the problem but have not studied it.

Both sides agree that it would not be prohibitively expensive to outfit cars with an adequate noisemaking device.

"It's cheaper than an airbag or other safety devices," Kwong said.

"Any kind of audio device is going to be relatively inexpensive," he said.

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