Electric vehicles pose concerns for blind pedestrians

I mentioned in my driving impression of the Chevrolet Sequel that engineers need to do something about the whooshing sound coming out of the tailpipe. The frequency and texture have absolutely no intrinsic connection to the automobile. Fortunately, you can barely hear it.

That's not good news for a blind person, however. I noticed a brief comment in a story from the San Luis Obispo Tribune about boot camps for blind students where they can learn more about navigating their surroundings.

"The biggest challenge is hearing a nearly silent electric car," said the story, noting that the students are taught to listen for tire sounds. That's great if the vehicle is running on 37-inch mud-terrain knobbies, but hybrids and electric vehicles are designed with low-resistance tires. They don't make any noise.

The story also said the National Federation for the Blind is working with automakers on a solution. So a quick search of the NFB Web site found an interesting presentation from Deborah Kent Stein. She asks: "How could blind people travel independently in a world filled with silent electric cars?"

Stein conducted a personal experiment when she heard a friend brought a new Prius. She had him drive by a few times and couldn't hear the car. She could feel no vibration or sense tire friction. With the backing of the NFB, Stein is a leader in reaching out to manufacturers and NHTSA to find a working solution. She has suggested starting up the cooling fan when the vehicle is a stop or have the vehicle emit a clicking noise when the axle turns. Another suggested a radio signal be mandatory so blind pedestrians could carry a beeper that signals when an electric vehicle is near.

This issue is not lost on the hybrid owners. A post on treehugger.com earlier this year was quite sympathetic to the problem, noting that one owner plays his music a little louder in parking lots to make sure he's heard.

[Source: National Federation for the Blind]

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