ADA Compliance Guide Newsletter
PROPOSAL TO MAKE HYBRID CARS AUDIBLE IS COMMENDABLE, BUT MORE ACTION IS NEEDED
Gary C. Norman, Esq. [FNa1]
Copyright 2009 by Thompson Publishing Group, Inc.; Gary C. Norman, Esq.
Americans love their cars. As a blind person and active attorney, I cannot deny this passion for the automobile, especially for classic muscle cars, even though ambulating on foot to benefit from goods and services not only increases overall health but also detracts from the "carbon footprint."
Cities in the U.S. however, are not designed, or have a historical shortfall of visionary design, to be pedestrian oriented. In the U.S., makes of vehicles, which are conceived as causing a net positive impact to the environment, range from an emerging sub-population of vehicles -- bio-fueled automobiles -- to the so-called hybrid. For citizens who cannot ambulate to the grocer and must transport a far distance on the one hand, but who also desire to reduce carbon emissions that emanate from fossil-fueled automobiles on the other, vehicles that are environmentally friendly may serve both purposes. There is, however, a concern posed by some people with sight disabilities and advocacy organizations that hybrids, or so-called quiet cars, are a hazard because they emit little to no noise.
Why Hybrids Need Sound
Substantial media coverage has been garnered by the National Federation of the Blind in recent years on the issue of why quiet cars should be sonorous.
According to Barbara Pierce in her article, "Quiet Cars and Blind Pedestrians: Problems and Progress," the solution to the hazards posed by quiet cars would be the adaptation of mounted speakers on front fenders emitting the sound of an engine idling, accelerating, traveling at traffic speed or braking (actually reflecting what the hybrid is doing). Pierce's article appears on the NFB's Web site.
If the NFB proves successful in its legislative advocacy efforts, fuel-efficient vehicles such as hybrids, which leave less of a "carbon footprint," will emit a minimal level of noise. The impact of quiet cars on people with visual impairments is already the subject of one report of a state taskforce in Maryland and is the subject of federal legislation currently pending in Congress.
A consumer-focused article on the issue of quiet cars will appear in the next issue of Dialogue Magazine. Providing a synopsis of relevant legislative proposals with corresponding commentary on the issue of adapting quiet cars to be "blind-friendly" seems fitting in light of the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, which is pending a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee as well as in an applicable Senate committee.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ed Towns, D-N.Y., and Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Arlen Specter, D-Pa., indicates that "New vehicles that employ hybrid or electric engine technology can be silent, rendering them extremely dangerous in situations where vehicles and pedestrians come into proximity with each other."
Section Four of the legislation would require the secretary of the Department of Transportation to conduct a study within 90 days of enactment on: "the practical means of assuring that blind and other pedestrians receive substantially similar information to information [able-bodied pedestrians] receive from sound emitted by vehicles that use internal combustion engines"; "the minimum level of sound emitted from a motor vehicle that is necessary to provide blind pedestrians with the information needed to make safe travel judgments"; and whether the minimal sound standard provides sufficient information to the blind to assure safe crossings, and the estimated cost and feasibility of any related equipment adaptations.
In light of the financial security of the American auto-motive industry, a disturbing unfunded mandate is found in Section Five of the legislation, which requires the promulgation of a motor vehicle safety standard by the secretary of the DOT. The standard would require every motor vehicle to be equipped with a method that furnishes the blind with information, (including direction and speed), in a degree similar to what used to be garnered from standard combustion-engine-driven automobiles. The legislation authorizes appropriations to the secretary for the study. Incentives for the implementation of this safety standard are, however, not furnished.
On its face, the intent of the legislation to protect the blind or vision impaired advocated by the NFB may be laudable. To this end, the organization should be commended for its ability to persuade governmental officials to undertake action on its policy agenda.
That stated, however, one must wonder about the goal of the NFB in relation to the issue of adaptations to quiet cars.
Is it notoriety or perhaps some future revenue stream from sound-generating adaptations to the automobile? No. But, perhaps the NFB does not comprehend that the hazards imposed by quiet cars, if any, are part of a larger need for pedestrian education, including the incorporation of mandatory pass or fail questions on people with disabilities into drivers' license tests.
Additionally, land use and transportation are inter-twined. The way engineers design cities and the way governments have policies that subsidize their sprawl impact the extent to which citizens have to rely on the gas-guzzling fossil-fueled family automobile.
The leadership of the NFB typically contends that blind or vision impaired people should "live in the word as it is[.]" This is why, for instance, the NFB has opposed adaptations to signalized intersections, through what are called Accessible Pedestrian Signals, which furnish equal or near-equal information as a sighted person receives when crossing a busy street.
Logic is strained as to why the NFB opposes, on the one hand, the solution of the Accessible Pedestrian Signal, while arguing, on the other, for adaptations to motor vehicles.