By Raghava Lakshminarayana
A blind man faces a great deal of setbacks in his life. Safe mobility is an issue. Non-sturdy sidewalks are always a concern and hasty drivers don’t help. But adding silent electric cars to the mix has left people like James Puchta completely baffled.
On Nov. 14, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) declared that all newly-manufactured electric vehicles must emit a noise to prevent blind pedestrians from being injured. This will apply to all electric and hybrid vehicles traveling under 30 kilometers per hour, or 19 miles per hour, according to a NHTSA press release.
“I would second anybody’s vote on having that on regular cars,” Puchta, a blind man and the director of benefits advisement at the Long Island Center for Independent Living, said. Puchta said that some of his most dangerous run-ins with road vehicles have happened right outside his workplace, in the Long Island Center for Independent Living parking lot, located close to the Nassau mall, in Levittown. “I work in a very dangerous pedestrian area.”
According to the same press release, this NHTSA federal rule, also known as Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 141, will prevent “about 2,400 pedestrian injuries each year once all hybrids in the fleet are properly equipped.”
Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 141 will comply with the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act (PSEA) of 2010, which was meant, “to direct the Secretary of Transportation to study and establish a motor vehicle safety standard that provides for a means of alerting blind and other pedestrians of motor vehicle operation.”
The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) was one of the more solid voices behind the Act, Anthony Stephens, Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs at AFB, said. “It was the realization that it was a serious risk for people that are blind,” Stephens said of electric and hybrid cars’ quiet motors. The blind have to rely on the environment for audible clues, Stephens said.
The rule has been met with both praise and criticism from the blind community and from the electric car community. Blind pedestrians often use seeing eye dogs to cross roads safely. While these dogs can hear the quiet electric and hybrid vehicles, they must still follow their handler’s commands, Stephens said.
“I am in favor of the new regulations, but as is usually the case, they only apply to vehicles to be manufactured in the future,” Frank Krotschinsky, the Director of the Suffolk County Office for People with Disabilities, said. “Thus those vehicles already on the road will continue to present a danger.”
Both Suffolk and Nassau County have had the highest number of electrical vehicles in New York State for the past two years, according to data from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). Suffolk County has a registered total of 2,750 electric vehicles while Nassau County has a registered total of 1,635 electric vehicles, as of 31 Dec. 2015. Other New York State counties like New York and Queens have registered electric vehicle totals of 668 and 650, respectively, as of 31 Dec. 2015.
The Seeing Eye, a famed seeing eye dog school located in Morristown, New Jersey, “was the first school to purchase a hybrid car and incorporate it into its training program,” Michelle Barlak, public relations specialist for The Seeing Eye, said. “We have adjusted our training program with our students to expose them to the hybrid car during their time at The Seeing Eye and to emphasize the need to trust their dog even if they are not sure why their dog has stopped,” Barlak said.
But some electric car drivers appreciate the quietness of their vehicle’s motors and don’t attribute this to potential pedestrian accidents.
“Because we’re in a quiet car, we can hear more—you can actually hear someone walking around,” Chris Neff, a board member of the Electric Auto Association (EAA), said. “It’s pretty amazing how much an [non-electrical] engine drowns out the external noises.”
EAA, a non-profit organization, focuses on promoting the adoption and use of electric vehicles throughout the country. It has around 30-40 chapters nationwide and around 1000 active members, Neff said. “The main goals really are to increase the adoption of electric vehicles—to educate people on how cool and efficient they are to drive.”
A 2011 model Nissan Leaf owner, Sean Bouker, has never thought of his electric car’s silent motor to be a problem. “My car already does make a noise. When going slow it’s something of a whine and a beeping sound, when backing up,” Bouker, the president of the Long Island Electrical Vehicle Club, said. “I have a feeling it will help save more people playing Pokemon Go, than the sight impaired.”
Bouker’s club is made up of around two dozen active members that drive electric cars in Long Island. “It’s important to have friends who know different areas when you need a recommendation for a place to charge your car,” he said.
Another indication of the growing amount of electric cars in New York State is the number of charging ports available. In the first quarter of 2015, New York State had 336 ports. Exactly one year later, this number increased to 482, according to data from NYSERDA. This represents a 43.5 percent overall increase in electric vehicle charging ports.
Other electric car drivers such as Carl Vogel, the president of the EAA New York chapter, do not see the growth of the electric car market slowing down because of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 141. A good example is Tesla’s Model 3, which has already received 400,000 pre-orders, ahead of its 2018 delivery date, Vogel said.
“Manufacturers have until Sept. 1, 2019, to equip all new hybrid and electric vehicles with sounds that meet the new federal safety standard. Half of new hybrid and electric vehicles must be in compliance one year before the final deadline,” according to the NHTSA press release.
“Drivers may know what other drivers do but they may not see it from the perspective of the pedestrian,” Puchta said. He said he hopes that all cars, not just electric ones, will be fitted with alarms when backing up.