Car Sound Bill Approved

House OKs deadline for hybrid, electric levels to warn blind

David Shepardson
Detroit News, Dec. 17, 2010

Washington— The House voted 379-30 Thursday to give federal safety regulators 18 months to set minimum sound levels from quiet electric and hybrid vehicles to warn blind pedestrians.

The legislation cleared the Senate last week on a unanimous vote. It’s the first piece of auto safety legislation expected to become law since President Barack Obama took office in 2009. Several other safety bills proposed in the wake of Toyota Motor Corp.’s sudden acceleration recalls have been stalled.

The bill will “preserve the right to safe and independent travel for the blind, ” said Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chief sponsor of the bill and a hybrid owner, said it “will allow us to continue to promote our energy independence and technological innovation while safeguarding those who use senses other than sight to navigate the roads.”

The bill requires the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set requirements for an alert sound that allows blind and other pedestrians to “reasonably detect a nearby electric or hybrid vehicle” operating at low speeds.

The two major auto trade groups — the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers — joined two major advocacy groups for the blind in promoting the legislation.

Blind pedestrians may not hear hybrids that shut off engines as vehicles come to a stop. New plug-in electric vehicles will be quieter still; some will have no internal combustion engine and will run only on battery power.

Under the bill, drivers won’t have to activate sounds; vehicles will do it automatically. The sounds must allow a blind pedestrian “to reasonably detect a nearby electric or hybrid vehicle.”

Automakers will be unable to allow drivers to deactivate the sounds.

Under a deal announced in May, NHTSA must “determine the minimum level of sound emitted from a motor vehicle that is necessary to provide blind and other pedestrians with the information needed to reasonably detect a nearby electric or hybrid vehicle operating” and must “consider the overall community noise impact.”

Blind pedestrians cannot locate and evaluate traffic by sight and instead must listen to traffic to discern its speed, direction and other attributes to travel safely and independently.

Other pedestrians, who are not blind, as well as bicyclists, runners and small children, will benefit, too.

Nissan Motor Co. has outfitted its Leaf electric car to automatically alert pedestrians when the car is operating at low speeds.

General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Volt, powered by a battery and a small internal combustion engine, has a chirping sound the driver can activate.
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