Pedestrian Safety Risks from Hybrid and Electric Vehicles Addressed by “Quiet Car” Standards

Federal highway safety officials have announced a new rule, which will require hybrid and electric cars to be equipped with a sound device, which will help pedestrians detect the presence of the quieter vehicles when they are moving in reverse or at slow speeds. 

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced the new “Quiet Car” standards (PDF) on November 14, in response to Congress’ mandate within the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, which requires a minimum sound requirement provide an audible alert to visually-impaired and blind pedestrians.

The minimum sound requirement for electric and hybrid vehicles was required by Congress in an effort to reduce an average of 2,400 pedestrian fatalities and injuries each year. Although the development and growth in popularity of electric and hybrid vehicles has been a positive change for reducing emissions, under certain speeds the vehicles virtually emit virtually no sound that would warn a pedestrian or cyclist.

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Under the newly rule, the NHTSA is requiring all hybrid and electric vehicles with four wheels and a gross vehicle weight rating 10,000 pounds or under to be equipped with a device or designed to produce a sound when traveling forward or in reverse up to 19 miles per hour. The sound would help to alert visually impaired pedestrians and cyclists.

“This is a common-sense tool to help pedestrians — especially folks who are blind or have low vision — make their way safely,” NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind said in a press release. “With pedestrian fatalities on the rise, it is vitally important we take every action to protect the most vulnerable road users.”

The NHTSA and the National Federation of the Blind warn that electric and hybrid vehicles in this specified weight class are nearly impossible to detect for the visually-impaired when traveling under 19 miles per hour, due to the lack of tire and wind noise. At higher speeds, the sound alert will not be required as other factors such as tire and wind noise provide adequate warning to pedestrians.

Evidence of the increased pedestrian safety risks due to quiet vehicles dates back to at least 2009, when the NHTSA released the report titled “Incidence of Pedestrian and Bicyclist Crashes by Hybrid Electric Passenger Vehicles”. The report compared the percentage of pedestrians and cyclists struck by both electric and hybrid vehicles (EHVs) compared to the number of individuals struck by internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. The report indicated that, overall, the odds ratios indicate that the risk of a hybrid or electronic vehicle being involved in either a pedestrian or bicycle crash are between 35% and 57% greater than the odds of an ICE vehicle being in a similar crash.

The terms of the new rule allow manufacturers until September 1, 2019 to equip all new hybrid and electric vehicles with sounds that meet the new federal safety standard, and at least half of all new hybrid and electric vehicles are required to be in compliance one full year before the deadline.

The NHTSA’s new rule comes amid growing road fatalities over the last several years. Last year, the NHTSA found that roadway fatalities increased by 10% and are on track for a similar increase this year. Researchers have warned that the second quarter of 2016 represents the seventh consecutive quarter that has had increases in fatalities, compared to the same quarters in previous years.


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