The Columbian, WA, USA
Friday, May 25, 2007

Silent threat

By BRETT OPPEGAARD, staff writer

Caption: Nick Wilks, a student at Washington State School for the Blind, has
nearly been hit twice in recent months at this intersection of East Reserve
Street and East McLoughlin Boulevard. He has to make the crossing to reach
his classes at Hudson's Bay High School. (TROY WAYRYNEN/The Columbian)

Caption: Nick Wilks, student body president at the state's school for the
blind, says hybrid cars traveling at low speeds can be nearly undetectable
to blind pedestrians. (TROY WAYRYNEN/The Columbian)

Each weekday morning, Nick Wilks crosses just one street. That's how the
17-year-old gets from his dorm room at Washington State School for the Blind
to classes at Hudson's Bay High School.

The intersection of East Reserve Street and East McLoughlin Boulevard is
quiet most of the time. But about 10:35 a.m., when Wilks is on his way back,
it's an obstacle course. Parking lots at nearby Clark College are filling.
Young drivers on lunch break from Hudson's Bay are often whipping through
that intersection from all directions. Wilks has almost been hit by cars
there twice this school year.

What's saved him? Hearing the uncomfortably close chugs of combustion

Yet what if cars were silent? That sounds like a futuristic dream, a
pleasing idea to those irritated by contemporary noise pollution. But it's a
frightening prospect to those, such as Wilks, who rely on sounds to survive.

Hybrid vehicles not only are emitting less toxins in the air and consuming
fuel more efficiently, but they are reducing ambient clatter. A Toyota Prius
running on its electric motor, which it typically does at low speeds, is
virtually silent.

The National Federation of the Blind has been voicing concerns about the
unintended side effect of that silence since shortly after Toyota introduced
the Prius, the first mass-produced hybrid, in 2000. The group says these
quiet cars are a hazard not only to blind people but also to anyone who
needs sounds for safety, including children, the elderly and bicyclists.

"If cars don't make noise, blind people can't safely navigate streets. ?
This really is a problem," said John Paré, the National Federation of the
Blind's director of public relations.

A blind woman in California recently reported having her foot run over by a
Prius. She commented that she didn't even know the car was there before it
hit her. Several other blind people have described minor injuries or near
misses to the National Federation of the Blind, though the organization
hasn't kept detailed records of the complaints. The group forecasts even
worse accidents ahead, as the cars become more prevalent, unless automakers
develop some sort of noisemaker for these vehicles.

Hybrids have become a growing trend in American cars. There now are about
400,000 of them on U.S. roads, according to market researchers R.L. Polk &
Co. New registrations doubled from 2004 to 2005, the most recent data

No pedestrian death has been linked to these cars. But, National Federation
of the Blind representatives note, there is no tracking mechanism, either.

Representatives for the two most prominent producers of hybrid cars, Toyota
and Honda, say they are aware of the sound concerns and are considering

Aerospace materials engineer David Evans, who tested hybrid and electric
vehicles at Stanford University in the 1970s, has been lecturing on this
topic, including speaking to the National Federation of the Blind. He says
early developers of the technology quickly learned that pedestrians couldn't
hear the cars and his group used whistles to solve the problem.

But carmakers are hesitant to add noise to the environment, and to incur
that expense, said Denise Morrissey, a spokeswoman for Toyota Motor Sales

"The (industry) trend is toward quiet powertrains in all sorts of vehicles,"
she said. "That trend has raised the need for other drivers and pedestrians
to increase caution and to be more aware of the surroundings."

Honda spokesman Sage Marie says this topic is a broad manufacturer's
concern, not something that each company should be pursuing individually. He
says the solution invariably will come through a collaboration among
government regulators from the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration, concerned groups such as the National Federation of the
Blind, and the industry's trade associations, including the Association of
International Automobile Manufacturers.

Michael Cammisa, director of safety for that auto trade group, did not
return multiple telephone calls requesting an interview for this story.

Stein of the National Federation of the Blind and others already have begun
lobbying the Society of Automotive Engineers to develop protocols for
minimum sound levels for vehicles sold in the U.S.

Stein said her group is proactively navigating the bureaucracy before
someone gets killed or seriously injured in an accident that could have been

In the meantime, blind pedestrians feel vulnerable.

Wilks, the Washington State School for the Blind's student body president,
said sound signals are particularly important to alert pedestrians to cars
making right turns across walkways.

Wilks was in the crosswalk between his schools a few months ago when two
cars, both turning right, pinned him in the middle. In another incident, in
January, he was about to step into the crosswalk when a driver decided to
speed up and make a right turn directly in front of him.

"That was really scary," he said. "I was just a couple of feet from the

Both times, he said, the sounds of the combustion engines helped him to
avoid injury.

The National Federation of the Blind has become concerned enough about this
perceived threat that it conducted an experiment this year at its annual
conference. About 30 blind or visually impaired members waited at an
intersection in front of the group's headquarters in Baltimore and were
asked to signal when they could hear a car approach. A Prius went by
undetected. They repeated the experiment in a quiet alley. The Prius that
time could be heard, but only at about 15 feet away.

Stein said, "I was aware, in the abstract, that we were going to have
electric cars that are very quiet, and something would have to be done to
make those pedestrian-friendly. Then, all of sudden these things were out on
the road, and nothing had been done."

Stein said the National Federation of the Blind supports hybrid cars and
their benefits. But the group also wants to ensure they are safe for

The organization is pitching for a device that makes the usual engine noise:
"We want something that's not going to be irritating to people. We're hoping
for a low-tech, inexpensive solution that can be an automatic add-on."

The Washington State School for the Blind, meanwhile, has a dilemma. As a
state agency, its staff reports directly to an office in Olympia. That means
four or five road trips a week from the Vancouver school, plus the 300 to
600 miles a week that teachers drive to serve students throughout the state.
The staff makes those trips in a fleet of four hybrid vehicles.

Principal Craig Meador acknowledges the irony. "I kind of look at it this
way: The technology is here, whether we like it or not," he said. "The issue
isn't so much that we are doing a good job with our gas mileage as, are we
supporting something that can be a danger and sometimes lethal to the blind
community? That concerns us."

He added, "We're probably going to see more of these kinds of things on the
market. We need to teach (blind students) to operate safely around these
cars, rather than to bury our head in the sand." For a video clip of
Washington State School for the Blind student Nick Wilks making his trek to
Hudson's Bay High School, see


The debate

Should quiet hybrid cars have noisemakers added to them, as a way to alert
nearby pedestrians?

– On one side:
If that sound will save lives, then why not find an inoffensive tone for
these cars to emit?

– On another side:
Our lives are polluted enough with noise. Encourage people to cross streets
more carefully and drivers to slow near crosswalks.

– Get involved:
The National Federation of the Blind can be reached through .