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Are Hybrids a Silent Danger?

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Tricitynews.com, January 11, 2008. For a web cast of Richard Marion's presentation on hybrid cars to Burnaby City Council mentioned below, visit: www4.insinc.com/ibc/mp/md/open/c/343/1305/200712171845wv150en,004

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John Rae and Lawrence Enteneier demonstrate with signs saying No to hybrid cars

Port Coquitlam Blind Advocate Wants to See Hybrid Cars Have Sound Effects Added

Hybrid cars may play a key role in the push to halt climate change but they're also putting blind pedestrians at risk.

That's because when they run on battery, they're virtually silent, says Richard Marion, President of the Lower Mainland Chapter of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians.

"If a hybrid is edging through an intersection to make a right-hand turn, a person that's totally blind wouldn't notice the vehicle," the Port Coquitlam man said.

In fact Marion, 39, said a blind person in Victoria had his cane run over by a hybrid vehicle last year in a similar situation.

Burnaby's traffic safety committee will review Marion's group's concerns and make a recommendation to council Feb. 5. By addressing city councils across Canada, the alliance hopes to fuel a dialogue about the dangers that hybrids pose to the blind and partially sighted; Burnaby is one of the first cities to respond and the alliance meets with Surrey's council Jan. 14.

Marion said his group hopes the city will lobby regulators about the need for hybrids to have sound generators, and use its purchasing power as an opportunity to bring its concerns to manufacturers' attention.

The alliance proposes manufacturers install a device that would emit a sound; its website suggests that the radiator fan switches on whenever the car is operating in electric mode or, perhaps, a device could be built into the axle to make a sound as the wheels rotate.

Hybrid cars use a blend of the traditional internal combustion-engine and electric motor technologies. Excess energy from the conventional engine, which is normally wasted, instead charges the car's battery. The hybrid switches between the two power sources and it is during the electric-power mode that the engine is silent.

A main selling point for hybrid vehicles is their low noise levels. Marion said members of the alliance understand that the sound generator should not be too intrusive to the point where it's causing grief for the driver but a compromise must be reached.

Bob Glover, a staff liaison to Burnaby's traffic safety committee, is unsure how the city will deal with the alliance's concerns but he said there are a number of options the city could take.

"The city council might decide to bring this to the attention of the federal government, who is responsible for regulating the auto industry," Glover said.

ICBC {Insurance Corporation of British Columbia} reported there were 7,000 hybrid vehicles in B.C. in 2006. As people look at greater fuel efficiency for environmental and financial reasons, Marion said the number of hybrids on the streets continues to grow.

Cyclists have also expressed concern about quiet hybrids.

"There's almost a wish that there should be a little bit of noise on hybrid vehicles so that you can detect them and not get panicked when they pass close by," said Jack Becker, President of the British Columbia Cycling Coalition. "But whether you really want that noise is to be discussed."

Marion said he hopes city councils will take the issue seriously and act quickly.

"The longer it takes for manufacturers to build a sound generator on hybrid cars," he said, "the more likely it will be for someone to have a serious accident."