For first responders approaching a crashed Nissan Leaf, it can be easy to recognize that the car is a plug-in electric vehicle and that a specific set of safety practices must be followed. But what about the upcoming Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid? Unless you really know your stuff, it sure looks like a regular Accord.

This possible confusion is why electric vehicles and hybrids need to have prominent labels inside or out to warn firefighters, paramedics and other first responders of the hazards they're facing from the high-voltage battery systems being used to power these cars. At least, that's the policy being promoted by the SAE International in its new report, J2990-Hybrid and EV First and Second Responder Recommended Practice.

The SAE's expert panel advises that EVs and hybrids should have inch-high letters or badges on both sides and the rear of the vehicle and that these should be visible to first responders from at least 50 feet away. An alternative could be distinctive lettering on the dashboard that rescuers can see through windshields.

The report covers a wide range of safety recommendations for these advanced vehicles including quick reference guides for first responders all the way to guidance for tow-truck operators on safely handling EVs and hybrids. This has to be done to save lives, says John Frala, an SAE committee member and an electric-vehicle repair instructor at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, CA. Adopting these recommended policies will ensure rescuers "will not get electrocuted from high voltage," Frala said in an interview with USA Today.

Hybrids have been on the roads more than a decade, and the number of plug-in electric vehicles is growing all the time. Firefighters are worried that the number of electrified vehicles on US roads is getting so large that first responders can't instantly identify them as they cut through cables to extract endangered passengers, despite participating in training programs.

Also, despite the similarities between the Honda Civic Natural Gas and regular Civics, The new labeling standards being recommended by the panel don't apply to natural gas vehicles or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Another SAE committee will be examining labeling and safety issues for these alternative powertrains, says Todd Mackintosh, the committee's chairman and an engineer for General Motors.

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