The US House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday that will require electric vehicles to make a sound while driving.
The so-called “Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act” now moves to President Barack Obama for signing.
The legislation will provide blind, visually impaired, and other pedestrians greater security when traveling in close proximity to hybrid or electric vehicles.
"The silent nature of hybrid and electric vehicles, coupled with their growing popularity, presents a dilemma,” said US Representative Edolphus Towns. “How do we protect individuals dependent on sound for their safety, such as unsuspecting pedestrians and the blind?"
Studies show that people rely more on their ears than on their eyes to detect traffic. This makes the problem acute for blind people.
"The visually impaired rely on audio cues to detect nearby traffic and these quiet vehicles pose a special risk to them and to other pedestrians," said Rep. Cliff Stearns.
The American Council of the Blind, through an active, two-year lobbying effort was instrumental in reaching a consensus with the auto industry and US Congress on the bill.
Once signed by Obama, the legislation will require the US Department of Transportation to begin writing standards. These will require electric vehicles to emit an alert sound so blind people and other pedestrians can reasonably detect a nearby electric or hybrid vehicle. The rules have to be finalized within three years.
Pedestrian safety is an issue for hybrid electric and full electric vehicles, because they emit little or no sound when driving at slow speeds using only electric propulsion. At higher speeds, wind and tires start to generate some noise.
Legislation is being considered in other countries as well. Japan issued guidelines for warning devices on electric vehicles in January 2010.
Most carmakers already are defining what kind of sound their electric vehicles should make. Nissan’s new Leaf electric vehicle, for example, uses an “approaching vehicle sound for pedestrians.” Nissan developed the sound with leading universities, advocacy groups and with the help of a Hollywood sound designer.