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Hybrid Cars Pose New Dangers

Editor's Note: Kim Kilpatrick is the AEBC's Executive Assistant. At the AEBC's 2005 Conference, the membership adopted Resolution 2005-25: Hybrid Cars, calling for research into the problems posed by the increasing presence of hybrid and electric cars on our roads. We have written to 17 automobile manufacturers and a couple of labour unions, and have asked the Transportation Development Centre to conduct research. If you have suggestions as to how we can proceed with this matter, please contact the AEBC's National Office or email: kilpatrick@blindcanadians.ca

I have heard (as I'm sure many of you have) about quiet or hybrid and electric cars for several years now.

I am conscious of and concerned for the environment, and support the need for cleaner air and a reduction in greenhouse gases, so the basic idea of quieter and more environmentally friendly vehicles has always seemed like a good idea to me. However, these vehicles pose new dangers to pedestrians, both blind and sighted.

A number of cars and pick-up trucks now operate using a combination of electricity and gasoline. These vehicles are known as hybrids because they blend combustion-engine and electric-motor technologies. Excess energy from the combustion-engine energy, which is wasted in conventional vehicles, charges the battery that runs the hybrid's electric motor. When it is in operation, the hybrid vehicle shifts automatically from one power mode to the other. How often and when the vehicle uses electric power varies widely according to model and design. The engine is silent when operating in electric-power mode.

I have been blind since birth and travelled with a white cane from age six. For the past 13 plus years I have been partnered with three wonderful guide dogs. I have always considered myself a competent and confident traveller and thought that I could overcome any challenge in my environment.

Recently, while walking on a very quiet residential street with a sighted friend, we paused at the corner. There was no background noise, no traffic noise, no loud music, etc.

I told Gia (my guide dog) "Forward". She refused to go.

My friend said, "There is a car on your right coming through the intersection."

I heard nothing. It was a quiet or hybrid car. I have since learned that these vehicles make absolutely no noise when going at low speeds or when idling, waiting for a light to change.

This impacts all kinds of situations for people like me who are blind.

Contrary to popular belief, our guide dogs do not read the traffic lights for us. When I reach a lighted intersection, I listen for the sound of traffic flow. If the traffic is flowing parallel to me, it means my light is green; however, I often wait for a fresh light to cross the street. If the traffic is perpendicular to me (moving across in front of me), the light is red and I wait for a green light.

If the intersection were full of quiet cars, I could not read the traffic and would not know when to give my dog the "forward" command.

But this is not the only issue.

When I stop at the corner of a stop street with no light, I listen to make sure no traffic is approaching before giving my dog the "forward" command. Again, if the intersection were filled with quiet vehicles, I would not know when it was safe to do this.

When I travel on a road with no sidewalks, I walk on the left-hand side with my dog on my left facing traffic. When cars approach us, I turn us into the curb edge to make sure we are out of the line of fire! Again, I would not know when traffic was approaching in this situation.

When walking through parking lots, I would not know if quiet cars were suddenly turning in front of me or coming from behind.

When walking down a sidewalk, I would not know if a quiet car was pulling into or out of a driveway.

Many of our big cities are now filled with wheelchair ramps at curbs. This is generally a good thing but makes lining up with an intersection trickier for someone who is blind. I use traffic noise to make sure I am pointing in the correct direction for a street crossing. This is especially useful when coming to rounded curbs, which make it even more difficult to line up with intersections.

In the winter here in Canada with snow-covered corners, lining up with intersections is trickier. When it is windy or raining hard or in winter when you need to wear a hat, traffic noise is already more muffled.

In her article, "Stop, Look and Listen: Quiet Vehicles and Pedestrian Safety, (The Braille Monitor, Vol. 48, No. 6, June 2005), Deborah Kent Stein offers some possible solutions:

"Perhaps hybrid vehicles could be engineered so that the radiator fan switches on whenever the car is operating in electric mode. The fan would emit a hum audible to pedestrians. Perhaps a device built into the axle could make a sound as the wheels rotate.

"It has also been suggested that blind travellers carry a device that would indicate when a hybrid or other quiet car is in the vicinity. The signal could be auditory or tactile. A tactile signal would have the advantage of not blocking other important sounds in the environment. In addition, it could be of great help to blind people who also have impaired hearing."

Technology certainly has made my life easier with talking computers and scanners, talking global positioning systems (which I want to acquire) etc., but these quiet cars pose dangers and could even be deadly for people who are blind or partially sighted.

I really feel passionate about this issue, as I cherish being able to travel independently. My dog is trained to stop for traffic but we are a team and a partnership, and I like to be able to provide as much input and guidance as I possibly can.

I just want these cars to make some kind of noise.