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Hybrid Cars: Danger for Hearing Impaired?

Check out the growing popularity of hybrids in the face of growing gas prices:

  • In 2008, Toyota will sell 280,000 hybrids alone.
  • Honda hybrid light duty vehicles increased by 4% and are growing fast.
  • All U.S. manufacturers will have different hybrids to market by 2011.
  • The number of hybrids on the road is expected to double in the next 12 months.
  • Analysts are predicting gas at $5.00 a gallon by the end of the year, further driving the demand for hybrid cars.

All good, right? All green? Well, the green part is right. These hybrids do use less gasoline but, as with most new technology, hybrid cars bring more than good gas mileage. They also bring a potential problem, especially for persons with hearing loss and vision loss.

The problem arises when the car switches to all-electric mode, powered only by the electric motor and stored energy from the battery. Theres no engine sound the sounds we've all come to recognize as a source of potential danger time to get out of the way.

Low-Hearing, Low-Vision, Children and You: At Risk

Were all at higher risk when we cant hear vehicles. Our brains have become hard-wired to recognize the sound of a car engine and the sound the cars four tires make against the road.

The problem is more complicated for low-vision, low-hearing and children pedestrians. Low-vision pedestrians rely on the sounds cars make to determine when its safe to cross a road, for example. Individuals with mild to moderate hearing loss can still hear a cars rumbling vibration, but would struggle to hear the sounds produced by a hybrid car.

So, individuals with sight or hearing loss face a special problem with the quietness of hybrid cars. And so do children. Kids are often more engaged in their activities than street traffic, but even children recognize the sound of an approaching car. Not so when a hybrid is running on electric power.

The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act

The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2008 directs the Secretary of Transportation to conduct a two-year study on how to best solve the problem of silent vehicles so were all a little safer walking the streets.

The bill also requires hybrid manufacturers to have solutions in place by 2010. Now, it usually takes a year or two of testing to implement a new system to solve a problem so car makers are well on their way to finding solutions.

Authority Lawrence Rosenbaum explains only a subtle enhancement of sound will be needed. Hybrids won't beep, chirp or produce an alarm. The enhancing sound probably will be the simulated sounds of a very quiet engine (think cooling fan), or of rolling tires.

So what can we expect to hear from hybrids in the next couple of years? The gentle whirr and the sound of rubber on road. Just enough noise to warn us of an approaching vehicle but not so much as to drive us all crazy.

Safe, sensible and green. Now that's a combination you can't beat.

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