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Nearly Silent Hybrid Cars May Endanger the Blind
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Nearly Silent Hybrid Cars May Endanger the Blind



From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

A few years ago, a listener who is blind wrote to us about a radical change in his life as a pedestrian. Time was, a lone person standing next to you said hello, you took it for the cheery camaraderie of a genial stranger and you replied in kind. Nowadays, you've just caught one end of a cell-phone conversation, and you are butting in.

Another recent development on the American sound-scape he mentioned, so many people wear shoes that are soft, the clatter of hard soles on pavement is no longer to be expected.

Well, what reminded me of that correspondence was word from the National Federation of the Blind that once-predictable sounds of a traffic intersection are now changing. So, out to K Street behind our building in Washington, D.C. This is actually a pretty shabby patch of the street that's renowned for lobbyists a little farther west. On our bit of it, the prostitution is not figurative, and here is the sound of a car approaching.

(Soundbite of traffic)

SIEGEL: Now here's the sound of a hybrid approaching and going past us.

(Soundbite of no discernable traffic)

SIEGEL: That was a pretty subtle sound, and the problem for people who are blind is that the hybrid is the motorized equivalent of a pair of sneakers. Dr. Frederic Shroeder, who's been blind since he was 16 and who's taught children who are blind and been an advocate for the blind, says the hybrid is too quiet.

Dr. FREDERIC SHROEDER (National Federation for the Blind): For a blind person traveling, just from a safety standpoint, having some sound - I don't know what that would be - but some sound to alert you would be absolutely critical, although I also think it's a safety issue for the sighted public. I used to be in public-school education, and the old days of telling kids to look both ways is gone. Now you tell kids to stop, look and listen.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Dr. SHROEDER: Now I hear a car going by.

SIEGEL: It was a conventional car going by.

Dr. SHROEDER: I don't hear anything going by, and I'll tell you when I do.

SIEGEL: Our hybrid just went by.

Dr. SHROEDER: Oh, well I missed him.

SIEGEL: Well, it's a very different sound of the hybrid going past, and here comes a conventional taxicab going past. Let's hear what that sounds like.

(Soundbite of traffic)

SIEGEL: What kind of a sound do you think one could attach to a hybrid car, one of whose selling points indeed might be that it's very, very quiet when it's working on electricity, on battery.

Dr. SHROEDER: Well, the simplest answer for me would be I'd like the car to sound the way cars conventionally sound. It doesn't mean they have to be sounding like a truck going by, or a city bus, but that's the sound that I'm accustomed to and that I automatically associate with traffic moving and moving at different speeds. I think if we could work with the car manufacturers and test out some various options, we could certainly find something that would provide the safety for blind people and others.

SIEGEL: That's blind pedestrian Dr. Frederic Shroeder, who as a member of the National Federation of the Blind, wants hybrid makers to add the automotive equivalent of a cow-bell to their nearly silent vehicles to give sightless Americans a signal of approaching cars.

By the way, the hybrid vehicle used for this test was a Toyota Prius, and the people at Toyota told us that they are aware of and studying the issue of the silence of the hybrids. They say on the opposite side of the issue are advocates of reduced noise pollution. And they told us that they know their cars are quieter than conventional ones and advised drivers and pedestrians to exercise increased caution.

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