Hybrid cars may be good for the environment but theyíre not too friendly to the visually impaired, Halifax regional councillors learned this week.
In fact, the gas and electric cars are so quiet they pose "a significant danger" to pedestrians, particularly those who are blind or partially sighted, says city hallís advisory committee for people with disabilities.
After many discussions, the committee came to the conclusion that hybrid cars should be louder.
"Consider that individuals who have vision loss rely predominantly on the sound of traffic flow to determine when to cross at an intersection or crosswalk," the committee said in a brief report to council.
But "if there is no sound produced from the approaching vehicle, and the pedestrian cannot see it, the risk factor for being struck by the vehicle is significant."
The danger of quiet vehicles also extends to other groups, the report said, including children on bikes and distracted walkers listening to MP3 players or IPods.
Coun. Mary Wile (Clayton Park West) sits on councilís disabilities committee and has taken part in exercises where participants simulate being blind. She said itís hard to know when to cross the street.
"You rely on the sound of the cars," she said.
After a brief debate, council agreed to write a letter to manufacturers and trade associations in the auto industry urging them to adopt a standard for the sound levels of hybrid vehicles. Not all were convinced it was a good idea, though.
Coun. Gloria McCluskey (Dartmouth Centre) owns a hybrid car and said Thursday that they are so quiet at stoplights that "itís almost like theyíre shut off."
"But I donít think thatís the answer to crossings," she said of making the vehicles noisier.
"Thatís where we need to be putting the (audible) signals in. Thatís the safest thing for (the visually impaired), not relying on cars."
Likewise, Coun. Andrew Younger (East Dartmouth-The Lakes) said heís wary about asking the auto industry to increase the noise levels of vehicles.
"My concern is that weíre writing a letter about something that weíve not fully looked into the implications," he said Thursday.
The National Federation of the Blind in the U.S. and the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians are already advocating legislation that would mandate a sound level standard for hybrid vehicles.
But the Canadian National Institute for the Blind is holding off until the issue is fully looked into, the CNIBís national co-ordinator of accessible design services said Thursday from Toronto.
"Weíre definitely aware of the difficulties that are posed by hybrid cars," Lesley MacDonald said. "And it is recognized that there needs to be something done."
The organization supports more research into the frequency, range and volume of hybrid carsí sound, she said.
"But itís not as simple as just putting a noise in there," she said.
Ms. MacDonald isnít sure yet if the research would mean the CNIB would approach car manufacturers about changing the way they make cars.
"We havenít come to that point, but maybe once research is done," she said.
Richard Jacobs of Honda Canada said the Honda Civic hybrid "isnít silent."
"Our hybrid is different from all others in that they run primarily off the gasoline engine," he said from Toronto.
In Honda hybrids, the electric motor essentially adds supplemental power, he said.
"And without getting too technical . . . the flywheel is still turning, so the car, in a sense, is still making noise just like a regular car would."
Over at Ford in Montreal, public affairs manager Christine Hollander said its hybrid cars are "not completely silent" either.
"Our vehicles, they do make a sound," she said of the Ford Escape hybrid.
"Thereís a fan and there are some sounds coming out of the vehicle."
The problem here is that everyone is acustomed to hearing the regular noises of a gas powered vehicle and now they don't hear them as much and they're complaining. cripes..... there's always something.
Tie some tin cans on the back of your car and the problem's solved.
What's next? Do they want bicyclists to start clamping baseball cards to their spokes?