Blind World Magazine

Pedestrians at risk around quiet hybrid cars.

February 5, 2006.
Contra Costa Times - CA,USA.

Jenny Sant'Anna was so excited. She had waited months for just the right hybrid, choosing a Toyota Highlander because, though she wants great mileage, she also needs space to cart around her two elementary school children and three classmates.

It was during her first trip out of the driveway on a warm August morning that Sant'Anna learned about one of the dangerous drawbacks of driving a hybrid: It's so quiet that pedestrians can't hear it when it's starting up or idling, and they often walk right into the path of the moving vehicle.

As hybrid sales skyrocket, there's a growing concern that the battery-gas powered vehicles pose a risk because they aren't as noisy as gas-powered engines. When idling, hybrids run on the quiet electric battery. Most, with the exception of GM and Honda hybrids, can also operate on the battery until the car reaches higher speeds, when the gas engine kicks in.

What follows is silence at locations where drivers are likely to tangle with pedestrians and bicyclists -- crosswalks, turning lanes and parking lots.

In Sant'Anna's case, an elderly man enjoying a morning walk didn't hear her coming as she backed into the street. She lunged for the brake, stopping just short of hitting him.

"He was in my blind spot on one side," said Sant'Anna, 41, of the Silver Creek area of San Jose. "Then I turned to look back on the other side and saw him clearing the corner of my car. I don't think he heard me and my heart almost stopped."

Tom Battle of Los Altos, recalled his own near-hit as he walked to his car in the parking lot at Symantec in Mountain View, where he is the director of engineering.

"I had to jump out of the way of a hybrid, which suddenly, and completely silently, moved toward me," he said. "The car was a brand new Prius, which I remember because it was still very shiny."

Traffic officials and police do not know of any cases in which pedestrians were harmed by the popular hybrids. Collision reports don't have a provision for considering whether the quiet nature of the car is a factor.

But Bond Yee, San Francisco's parking and traffic director, said his city may start indicating such causes.

"It could become an issue as hybrids become more popular," Yee said.

Sales of hybrids in the United States are expected to grow to 277,642 this year, up 31 percent from a year ago when 211,875 were sold in this country. People in the Bay Area who have ordered the Prius may wait three to four months for delivery, compared with a month last year.

A hybrid emits less than three decibels of noise when starting up, a level hard to pick up with the human ear. A hybrid clipping along at 35 mph emits 75 decibels -- quieter than a vacuum cleaner.

Toyota offers a rear-view camera that enables Prius drivers to see if someone is standing behind their cars. And some hybrid driving manuals warn owners to be alert when driving near pedestrians.

"In a parking lot, people actually turn and look you in the eye and still step in front of the car as if it isn't there," said Rick Jarboe of Los Gatos, owner of a 2003 Prius. "This has happened more times then I care to count, so it is a car where you truly have to be very defensive. It really does change the way you drive near people walking, and it is sometimes scary what you see."

Three years ago, the National Federation of the Blind raised concerns that electric cars and hybrids pose special dangers to people who rely on their hearing to cross a street. The group asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to research the effect of quiet cars on pedestrians.

The group suggested that some sort of noise be added to hybrids, perhaps by having the radiator fan switch on whenever the car is operating by battery, to alert people walking nearby. So far, no federal studies have been undertaken.

"If I was in a mall parking lot, I would be very concerned walking," said Randy Tamez, 43, of San Jose, who has been blind for 18 years and uses his hearing to judge when it's safe to enter a crosswalk, based on whether traffic is moving or stopped at an intersection. "You think that a driver should see me with a white cane, but that's often not the case.

"I listen for cars. If I can't hear them, that's a worry."

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