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'Green' Cars Called Threat to Blind Pedestrians

Setting out from their Buchanan Crescent townhouse for a morning jaunt, Bob Brown and his guide dog, Boone, set a good pace. It's more like a power walk than a stroll and they work as a team, moving easily around their neighbourhood.

"Brantford's pretty good, pretty accessible," the 33-year-old visually impaired man said. "We can get up to Williams for coffee if we want, and I can go up to the (Lynden Park) Mall for groceries and back no problem.

"Sometimes I use public transit or the heel-toe express. It depends on the weather."

He enjoys his independence and mobility. But he worries they will be threatened by the growing popularity of hybrid vehicles, which run on gasoline and a rechargeable battery. In battery mode, they are quiet.

Hybrids may be good for the environment, but they are not so good for the blind and visually impaired, said Brown. "When I'm walking on a sidewalk, I depend on my guide dog and my ability to hear traffic," he said. "If I can't hear a car coming, if it's backing out of a driveway, I won't hear it until it's too late.

"I already know what it's like to get hit by a car, and I don't want to ever have that feeling again."

He can't go into details about his accident, which happened almost two years ago. But the experience of being hurt and losing his guide dog is enough to compel him to sound the alarm over hybrid vehicles. He wants the automakers to come up with a way of making the vehicles loud enough so they can be heard by all pedestrians. And if the car companies won't do it voluntarily, Brown said he thinks the government should force this issue through legislation.

"There is some work going on in the United States on this, and I think a couple of states are in the process of trying to come up with some regulations, some standards.

"I don't know if there is much happening here in Canada. I think they're taking a kind of a wait-and-see approach."

Brown has been visually impaired since he was about seven. His impairment was caused by retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disorder of the retina that, over time, causes severe vision loss.

Brown isn't the only one raising concerns about hybrid vehicles. John Rae, the first vice-president of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, called hybrid vehicles a “major” safety concern for all pedestrians, not just blind and visually impaired people. Joggers and walkers wearing headphones are all vulnerable because of the quietness of hybrid vehicles. "We recognize the importance of saving the environment," Rae said. "But we don't see this as an either-or issue.

"We think vehicles can be good for the environment, as well as safe."

He's calling on the various levels of government to force the auto industry to come up with a way of making the vehicles safe enough for pedestrians. Now, with the auto industry looking for taxpayer bailouts to keep it afloat, is the perfect time for the government to get car makers to address the issue. "We'd like them (the automakers) to do it voluntarily, but if they don't, we think the government should step in and force them," Rae said. "So far, we haven't received much of a response from the auto industry."

Toyota is one of the industry leaders in developing hybrid vehicles and is the manufacturer of the Toyota Prius, one of the most popular and recognizable of hybrid vehicles. Rae thinks Toyota is a company that could set the standard for other companies to follow.

Nicole Grant, of Toyota Canada's public relations office, said Toyota is always looking for ways to improve public safety, as well as improvements to sustainable mobility. Toyota seeks to maintain a balance between those concerns, as well as other societal issues, such as noise pollution and environmental concerns. "We're always working towards that balance, and public safety is at the top of our list of concerns," she said.

Reprinted from the Brantford Expositor, November 26, 2008.

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