Coming soon: new minimum sound standards for hybrid vehicles

By Michael Yudell

Earlier this month the United States Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed new minimum sound standards for hybrid and electric vehicles traveling under 18 miles per hour, a speed at which such cars travel in near silence. Under the new regulation, hybrid and electric vehicles will be required to produce a sound that pedestrians would be able to hear clearly, and one that will be easily recognized as coming from a vehicle.The NHTSA’s proposal is now open for public comment through early March, after which the agency will formulate its final regulation.

The new standard, a requirement of the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act (PSEA) of 2010, is necessary because at low speeds, with only the electric motor propelling it, hybrid and electric vehicles travel almost silently, resulting in a potentially dangerous situation for the blind and visually impaired who need to hear a car coming to avoid harm. The rule also protects cyclists who also depend on the sounds of an approaching car to stay safe.

According to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood,“Safety is our highest priority, and this proposal will help keep everyone using our nation’s streets and roadways safe, whether they are motorists, bicyclists or pedestrians, and especially the blind and visually impaired.”

At low speeds the sound requirement is designed to redress the fact that hybrid vehicles are significantly more likely to be involved in collisions with pedestrians and cyclists than a standard combustion-engine vehicle.

For those of us who are not visually impaired or blind, we take for granted the role that a car’s sound plays for some. The sounds emitted by a car’s engine help alert blind individuals to a car’s location and speed, as well as which direction it is coming from.

This is a cheap and easy fix. The NHTSA estimates the new regulation will cost manufacturers approximately $35 per vehicle. But more importantly, the new standard will reduce injury and save lives.

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