Jane Bradley: Electric cars sound like bad idea

Todays electric cars come with a bevy of bells and whistles  literally, meaning you might not realise one is bearing down on you as you go to cross the road. Picture: Getty
Todays electric cars come with a bevy of bells and whistles  literally, meaning you might not realise one is bearing down on you as you go to cross the road. Picture: Getty
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They’re green, but super-quiet vehicles could knock you down if you don’t hear them coming, writes Jane Bradley

Wandering around a museum exhibit dedicated to light and sound displays, I left a gallery to find myself in a quiet, dark, empty room.

Assuming it was a part of the exhibition which was undergoing renovation, I walked out into the room, aiming to reach the exit door on the other side.

But as soon as I took one step onto the floor, I jumped back in fright. For when I tried to cross the floor, sensors sparked the noise of a car screeching to a halt.

I tried again. One step. SCREEEECH. Panic. Jump back.

And again.

I just couldn’t do it. It worked against every natural instinct to allow myself to walk across a floor which – to my audio senses at least – meant I was actually stepping out into a road rammed with busy traffic which could, if I continued, mow me down.

The only way I managed to make it across the room was to cover my ears with my hands, gather all of the courage I could muster and run flat out to the safety of the other side.

In short, I had to trick my senses into acting against what they thought was best for my self-preservation – which was: if you can hear a car coming, do not cross.

This is only natural – the reaction is instilled into you from a tender age. At school we learned a handy little song when we were being taught road safety: “Stop, look, listen, before you cross the street.”

You see, listening was an integral part of that. While you cannot 100 per cent rely on hearing a car’s engine, it definitely helps as an added warning.

Yet, now, crossing the road on a daily basis, I can no longer rely on my ears to help me know when I am in danger: for the newest vehicles to hit our roads, electric cars, are silent.

With no rules currently in place for automatic warning noises, the growing number of electric or hybrid cars on Scotland’s roads could silently sneak up on me and knock me down when I am least expecting it.

The number of electric-powered vehicles is on the rise. According to UK figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, 14,498 new vehicles were registered in 2014. They are the future.

While I am all for electric vehicles – their environmental impact is without question beneficial – for a nation brought up to understand that cars go “vroom vroom”, we are not equipped to avoid being knocked down by silent killers.

Of course, it is a problem which manufacturers of electric vehicles have considered. At present, a button which simulates an engine sound is optional. It is fitted on many models of electric car, but can be turned off by the driver – and also, in many cases, is only activated at all when the car is travelling above a certain speed, usually around 25 or 30mph.

Some eschew the sound of a traditional car, instead offering bells, beeping, whistles and so on instead of the roar of an engine – which could pave the way for roads which sound more like an episode of the Magic Roundabout than any kind of ordinary Scottish street.

Even Nancy Gioia, head of global electrification for car manufacturer Ford, has commented that car companies should consider standardising tones to avoid a “cacophony of confusion” on the roads. I’m with Nancy.

A study published last year by Guide Dogs for the Blind, which has long lobbied for electric cars to make a noise – fearing that blind people have even more of a need for some kind of audio alert that a car is coming than hearing people – found there had been a 54 per cent increase in pedestrian injuries in accidents involving quiet cars between 2012 and 2013.

Meanwhile, the study claimed, pedestrians are 40 per cent more likely to be run over by a hybrid or electric car than by one with a petrol or diesel engine.

A separate survey, carried out by YouGov last year, found more than three quarters of people believe hybrids make the roads less safe for blind or partially sighted pedestrians – and think older people and children are most at risk from being unable to hear a car approaching.

Two years ago, a new rule was introduced by the European Parliament that would see all electric vehicles within the EU forced to become heard and not just seen. Under the revised laws, new models of electric and hybrid vehicles in the EU will have to make a noise similar to that of a standard car – no bells and whistles – by 2019 and all new electric and hybrid cars, even those produced to pre-2019 designs, must be audible by 2021. But of course, the UK is leaving the EU, so won’t benefit.

Yet, even if the newly Brexited UK went ahead and adopted similar regulations, electric cars travelling around from before this date with no requirement to make a noise could still be travelling around.

And for the child crossing the road alone for the first time, the elderly person gingerly making their way off the footpath, perhaps not moving as fast as the next person, those cars could spell the difference between safety and danger.

Surely legislation could be speeded up? For starters, it could be law – in Scotland at least – that all electric car drivers have to press the button if the feature is installed.

That would, at least, solve the problem for the majority of people, potentially preventing a large proportion of accidents.

Come on, Holyrood, get to it.