Blind make a noise over the 'silent hazard' of hybrid cars
GAS-ELECTRIC hybrid vehicles, the status symbol for environmentally conscientious Americans, 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 carpark.
Deborah Kent Stein, who chairs the National Federation of the Blind's committee on automotive and pedestrian safety, said: "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.
"We did a test, and I discovered, to my great dismay, that I couldn't hear it."
The tests, admittedly unscientific, involved people standing in carparks or on pavements 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 the vehicle had already done two or three laps around the parking lot," Ms Stein said.
Officials with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) 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.
The NFB, the leading advocacy group for 1.3 million legally blind people in the US, made pleas to the car 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.
The Association of International Auto Manufacturers, 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 equip cars with an adequate noise-making device.
The blind, however, will have to win over some hybrid owners, as well as advocates for reduced noise pollution.
"To further expose millions of people to excessive noise pollution by making vehicles artificially loud is neither logical nor practical nor in the public interest," said Richard Tur, founder of NoiseOFF, a group that raises awareness of noise pollution.
BIG RISE IN HYBRID SALES
NEW registrations of hybrid vehicles in the United States grew by more than 49 per cent in the first seven months of this year compared with the same period in 2006, according to research firm RL Polk.
Toyota has sold nearly 460,000 of the Prius model, the most popular of the hybrids, since it hit the market in 2000, says the company, which puts total hybrid sales at 900,000.
The Prius has been driven by stars such as Leonardo diCaprio and George Clooney, anxious to prove their green credentials.
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