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Silence of hybrids isn’t golden, it’s dangerous

September 7, 2014


Hybrid electric vehicles are all over the streets of Vancouver — lots of delivery vehicles, mail trucks, whole taxi fleets of Toyota Prius hybrids and scores of hybrid SUVS. And I would only expect the percentage of hybrids to increase.

While my heart beats a little faster as I think of all these wonderful less-polluting electric engines, it fairly make my heart race when I’m riding my bicycle and one of these “silent killers” suddenly, and without any warning, backs out of a parking space.

I’ve had more close calls with sneaky, silent hybrid SUVs and Prius cabs than I can count over the last few years.

And I’ve just had another few close calls this week and I’m getting sick of it — I’d like regulators to get off their asses and do something before I get dead of it!

Hybrids should be seen and heard!

Up to 30 km/h, hybrid vehicles (HEV) generally use their silent electric engines. Over 30 km/h their audible internal combustion engines (ICE) take over. And anyway, over 30 km/h a vehicle’s tires begins to generate significant sound from contact with the road.

The problem is twofold:

So much city driving is done at slow speeds under 30 km/h — starting from a full stop, exiting parking spaces and turning corners for example — when hybrids run dead silent.

And all this low-speed city driving occurs in close proximity to pedestrians, people with disabilities and bicyclists.

Conventional wisdom isn’t keeping up with hybrids

Slowing cars has long been synonymous with safer city streets. It stand to reason that slowing traffic down gives everyone using the roads, drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists alike, more time to react and avoid collisions.

Hybrid electric vehicles appear to change that equation because it’s precisely at those “safe” slow speeds that hybrids are especially dangerous.

The influential Vision Zero movement, which originates in Sweden, aims to create road safety rules that utterly eliminate injuries and fatalities from traffic accidents. One of it’s key recommendations has always been that zones, such as crosswalks, where pedestrians have to mix with motor vehicles should have a speed limit no higher than 30 km/h.

And in British Columbia, 30 km/hour is the posted speed limit in school zones during school hours and year round in playground zones from dawn to dusk.

The Toyota Prius normally runs on its silent electric motor until acceleration reaches 24 km/h (15 mph) and then the ICE kick in. However, if acceleration is slow enough the Prius will stay in electric mode up to 30 km/h (18 mph). A 2013 U.S. government study assumed the average hybrid’s transition from electric to ICE was at 30 km/h.

Accidents quietly waiting to happen

“I’m sure all of us have experienced at some time the fear of getting struck by a Prius.”

Jesse Toprak, an analyst for industry data provider

You bet we have! Wherever there are more hybrids there are more accidents with pedestrians and bicyclists.

In 2009 a U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study using very limited data showed that hybrids vehicles, compared to ICE vehicles, were twice as likely to hit bicyclists (0.6 to 0.3 percent) and half again as likely to hit pedestrians (0.9 to 0.6 percent).

A further 2011 study by the NTSA using considerably more data found hybrids 37 percent more likely to hit walkers and 66 percent more likely to collide with bicyclists.

In November 2012 a British Labour party politician cited a British study showing hybrids were 25 percent more likely to be involved in collisions with pedestrians than the ICE vehicles.

Traffic studies have long shown that accidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists with motor vehicles most commonly occur on roadways in low speed limit zones during daytime, in clear weather.

And studies from Europe and the United States both find that HEVs have a higher incidence of pedestrian and bicyclist crashes than do ICE vehicles in certain traffic situations — at interchanges and intersections, slowing, stopping, backing up and entering and exiting parking spaces and turning corners.

The silence of the lambs legislators

Four years ago U.S. lawmakers identified that hybrid vehicles posed a potential safety threat to bicyclists and pedestrians — especially if those pedestrians were visually-impaired.

To that end the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2010 was passed by Congress and signed into law by the U.S. President Obama in January 2012. It called for the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to develop a standard means of alerting blind and other pedestrians of motor vehicle operation.

A year ago the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, via the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released proposed minimum sound requirements for hybrid and electric vehicles. The proposals covered any vehicle “capable of propulsion in any forward or reverse gear without the vehicle’s internal combustion engine (ICE) operating.

The proposed alert sounds would kick in whenever a motor vehicle is operating only using its silent electric motor: when the vehicle is operating under 30 km/h per hour (18 mph); when the vehicle’s starting system is active but the vehicle is stationary and when the vehicle is operating in reverse.

The proposal cited statistics to the effect that a vehicle in silent electric mode involved in a low speed maneuver, such as making a turn, slowing or stopping, backing up, entering or leaving a parking space, or starting in traffic was 1.38 times more likely than an ICE vehicle to be involved in a collision with a pedestrian, And 1.33 times more likely to be involved in a collision with a cyclist.

The deadline for the final rule for a mandatory audible sound for hybrid electric operation was January 2014 and was then to be phased in no earlier than September 2016.

The NHTSA missed its January 2014 deadline amid heavy lobbying from hybrid vehicle makers who all balk at implementing audible sounds for hybrids.

According to GreenCarReports, Automakers say the NHTSA 2013 proposals would “result in alert sounds that are louder than necessary, create driver and occupant annoyance and cost more than necessary.”

Since 2010, in an effort to head of legislators, many hybrids and electric vehicle have come with standard or optional pedestrian alert sounds that drivers can turn on, if they want to. Hybrids so-equipped include the Nissan LEAF, the GM Volt, the Toyota Prius and the Fisker Karma.

According to Chevrolet’s “EV Etiquette,”  the 2014 Chevy Spark’s “Pedestrian-Friendly Alert Function projects a light chirp when pressed”.

Unfortunately, when pressed, hybrid manufacturers well tell you that drivers want the alert sounds like they want a hole in the head.

It’s another case of the rights of the individual clashing with the so-called greater good. As with seat belts and helmets, most hybrid owner won’t use a pedestrian alert sound unless the law makes them. Or unless it can’t be turned off.

The silence is certainly deafening in Canada

I can find nothing at all that suggests that either Transport Canada or the Canadian federal government has the slightest interest in regulating the low speed sound of hybrid and electric vehicles.

Back in 2010 Transport Canada conducted noise emission tests on an electric vehicle conversion, admitting that “concern is that EVs may not make enough noise to warn visually impaired pedestrians”.

However the test were all at running speeds well in excess of 30 km/h and the results were uniformly that tires makes significant noise at higher speeds (duh!).

British Columbia’s WorkSafe BC regulations require backup alarms on all “mobile equipment” (beep, beep, beep) which certainly applies to all transit buses, waste collection trucks as well as commercial delivery trucks — including hybrids — but apparently not to commercial taxi cabs.

I do not recall hearing any other kind of hybrid motor vehicle — taxi cab or SUV — beep in reverse — only honk when going forward.

Honestly? I think ALL new vehicles in B.C. should be required to have backup alarms.

The British Columbia motor vehicle act regulations appears to call for slow moving vehicles to have a warning device, however it appears by “device” they mean a sign and not an auditory indicator.

At the very least, the provincial government could make it law that all hybrid and electric vehicles operate with their pre-installed pedestrian alert sound systems turned on.

According to the David Suzuki Foundation, As of the end of 2009, there were already almost 800 hybrid taxis in B.C. And today, that number will be much higher. Vancouver Cabs operates a high percentage of hybrid vehicles and Yellow Cab Vancouver boasts a 200-car hybrid fleet.

B.C.’s Passenger Transportation Board, which sets rules for the Province’s taxi cab fleets could make sure that all of the hybrid cabs were obliged to use their pedestrian alert systems.

When Silent Night earned you a stiff fine

Over 200 years ago, legislators all over North America addressed similar safety concerns when they enacted tough traffic ordinances requiring all silent-running winter sleighs to be decked out with bells — oh, you thought that was just a Christmas cheer thing?

And in case you’re wondering, I’m well aware this does nothing to enhance the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists who walk and ride with their ears plugged up with tunes or talk from their mobile phones or MP3 players. Safety-wise, they’re lost souls, every one of them. I’d pray for them if I was religious.

From → British Columbia

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