Hybrid’s lack of engine noise worries some road users

Dear Street Smarts, Q: I had this thought after I went for a drive in my daughter’s new hybrid Prius. It was so quiet that it could prove to be dangerous to pedestrians used to hearing cars approaching. Now, it is even more important to look before you enter the roadway. Mike Schell, via email A: You hit the nail on the head. Thank you for your letter on this interesting topic. Some groups representing cyclists, pedestrians and the blind have been advocating for electric and hybrid vehicles to make some sort of noise so as not to take those road users by surprise. The issue has been brewing over the years, leading the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to study crashes involving silent automobiles, pedestrians and bicycles. It released its preliminary findings in September. The agency studied 8,387 crashes in 12 states, excluding California, involving hybrids between 2000 and 2006. Researchers found that 77 involved pedestrians and 48 collided with cyclists. NHTSA also looked at 559,703 crashes involving vehicles with internal combustion engines and found that 3,578 were involved in collisions with pedestrians, while 1,862 collided with cyclists. In 2007, there were 350,289 hybrids in the U.S., according to the study. At issue with the hybrid, is that in low speeds and while sitting idle, those vehicles, like the Prius, emit no engine noise. By low speeds, that means the vehicle is traveling under 30 mph, said John Prentice of Ocean Honda in Soquel. On the other hand, the Civic hybrid emits engine noise at all times, he added. “The Prius is a very quiet car,” said Prentice. “We’ve never heard any complaints about them regarding noise” or lack thereof. While NHTSA researchers embark on a larger study before reaching any conclusions about whether silent cars should be required to be given a voice, Santa Cruz resident Veronica Elsea, 56, said the solution is simple – drivers of quiet cars should be extra cautious while behind the wheel. “It’s a mixed thing for me,” said Elsea, who has been blind since birth. “I don’t want to be used as a catalyst for making the environment noisy. The problem we face with this stuff is that car advertisers shaped the driver’s thinking around things such as cage protection and this and that, but people have forgotten that they are driving a really dangerous weapon. We need people in the Prius to really look before they go.” Like many blind people, Elsea was taught to use her hearing to gauge what’s going on around her, including whether there’s a car nearby that could harm her when she tries to cross a driveway or street. But silent cars have thrown a wrench into that lifelong strategy. As a result, Elsea has had her share of bumping into silent cars. “I’ve smacked into a couple of them pretty good because I didn’t hear them sitting there,” she said. She’s even been hit by a car that she didn’t hear sitting in her path and whose driver didn’t see her coming. “I had someone slowly creep out of a driveway on Mission Street and bump into me,” Elsea said. “Right as I was there, the person started to move. It wasn’t a serious thing, but it could have been.” But don’t get her wrong, Elsea has ridden in a Prius and enjoys the idea if silent vehicles. “I want our world to quiet down,” she said. “But we can’t have quiet and faster vehicles in this mix of pedestrians and bicycles. Until we come up with a good solution, everyone on all sides will have to be more observant.” Elsea would like drivers to be as careful as a woman she had encountered some time ago. “One time, there was a hybrid there and the woman stuck her head out her window and said, ‘Hi, I’m in a Prius,’” Elsea said. “It didn’t cost her any money. It didn’t add any more beeps into the world than we already have. It was the perfect solution. I like the low tech stuff. If it convinces people to be more careful because their machines can be dangerous, it’s a good thing.” Driving around pedestrians Here are some tips from the California Driver Handbook on motoring around pedestrians:
  • Respect the pedestrian right-of-way.
  • Always stop for any pedestrian crossing at corners or other crosswalks, even if the crosswalk is in the middle of the block, and at corners with or without traffic lights, whether or not the crosswalks are marked by painted lines.
  • Do not pass a car from behind that has stopped at a crosswalk. A pedestrian may be crossing.
  • Do not drive on a sidewalk, except to cross it at a driveway or alley. Yield to pedestrians that may be crossing.
  • Do not stop in a crosswalk.
  • If a pedestrian makes eye contact with you, he or she is ready to cross the street. Yield to the pedestrian.
  • Allow older pedestrians more time to cross the street.
Blind pedestrians The driver handbook also offers the following ways drivers should conduct themselves around blind pedestrians:
  • Don’t stop your car more than five feet from the crosswalk.
  • Drivers of electric and hybrid vehicles must be extra alert to blind pedestrians, as they may be unaware of your presence due to the nearly silent nature of these vehicles.
  • Don’t give the blind pedestrian verbal directions.
  • Don’t turn right on red without looking first.
  • Stop at all crosswalks where pedestrians are waiting.
  • Don’t stop in the middle of a crosswalk.
  • Don’t block any sidewalk.
  • Don’t honk your horn.
Read more about motoring around pedestrians and blind people at http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/hdbk/right_of_way.htm. Check out the NHTSA study on hybrids versus pedestrians and cyclists at http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811204.PDF. Also, British performance car maker Lotus developed engine noise for silent cars. Learn more about it at http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811204.PDF and http://www.grouplotus.com/engineering/downloads/videos.html.
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