by John Paré
From the Editor: John Paré is the executive director of strategic initiatives for the National Federation of the Blind, and he is the staff member who has put in the most time, energy, and intense concentration on the issue of silent cars. He shares the concern for the safety of pedestrians that all of us carry in our hearts and in our heads, but he is the person who has translated that concern into responses which distinguish the National Federation of the Blind by acknowledging our early work on the issue, our innovative ways to bring it to the attention of people capable of doing something about it, and riding herd over the process to make sure that it did not stall or go astray. Here is what John has to say about the fight to get a bill enacted, the challenge of getting that act into a proposed rule, and the difficulty in getting the Obama administration to publish a rule that the blind, other pedestrians, and the auto makers could accept as reasonable, doable, and in the interest of all involved:
Much of what we do in the National Federation of the Blind focuses on enhancing the quality of life for blind people through creating opportunities and raising expectations. Anything that comes between blind people and living fruitful and fulfilling lives is something we target. But on rare occasions we are called on to do more than work on quality of life issues and deal with the preservation of life itself. This was the case when we found that something essential to our independent travel was changing in a way that could take it away and could easily result in injury or death.
In 2005 the buzz was all about hybrid electric cars. They were coming to market, and many things about them were appealing: they used less fuel, emitted less pollution, and generated less noise. All of us were excited; all of these things we viewed as positive. But when we learned that less noise translated to no useable sound, a real issue of safety emerged for blind and sighted pedestrians alike that we could not ignore. Silent vehicles are essentially stealth vehicles to blind people, and although it is less obvious, they are nearly as dangerous for people who can see. This is because a pedestrian who can see is often alerted about where to look based on what he or she hears. For an in-depth discussion about how the Federation came to identify the problem of nearly silent vehicles, the denials that a problem existed, the work to find allies, and the struggle to get a bill passed and signed by the president to address the issue, I urge you to read an excellent piece written by Debbie Kent Stein entitled “Belling the Cat: The Long Road to the Passage of the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act,” which appeared in the June 2011 issue of the Braille Monitor. On January 4, 2011, President Obama signed into law the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, requiring that the United States Department of Transportation write regulations to implement a minimum sound that vehicles must make when traveling the streets of this country. The signing of the act represented a big step forward in recognizing that it is desirable that vehicles be quiet, but that they be no quieter than safety will allow. Throughout this article I will simply refer to this as the act. Even in our most optimistic moments we realized that writing the regulations would take time, getting them reviewed would be painfully slow, and the phase-in period would leave us unprotected far longer than we wished. Even so, few of us believed it would be 2016 before the final regulations were published and probably 2020 before the act is fully implemented.
In drafting regulations, four distinct issues had to be addressed: safety, stakeholder agreement, conducting and interpreting the research, and embracing the global trend that would set the direction of carmakers. Although we tend to think of American legislation as something that primarily involves Americans and American policy, the automobile industry is one of the few uniquely global marketplaces. In September 2009, before the passage of the act and certainly strengthening the case for it, a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said that hybrid electric vehicles were twice as likely to be involved in accidents with pedestrians than their internal combustible engine counterparts. In a second report issued in October 2011, using a much larger sample size, the same agency said that there was a 35 percent greater likelihood of accidents involving hybrid electric vehicles and pedestrians. It also found a staggering 57 percent greater likelihood in accidents involving quiet cars and cyclists.
In all, NHTSA produced three research reports that together totaled more than 900 pages. Separately and together, all pointed to the undeniable conclusion that sound and safety are inextricably bound together. Guidelines for the industry had previously stressed the reduction of sound through the establishment of a maximum noise emission standard. Noise was the enemy of the automotive engineer, a word so vile that there was no way to use it with these professionals and communicate anything hinting at something positive. "You will undermine your case for a minimum sound standard if you say you want the car to make noise. You do not want noise. You want usable sound, not noise." This was the message from one of the more vocal members at a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers back in 2008, and his vocabulary lesson was one we took to heart.
What the reports issued by NHTSA made clear was that safety would require a minimum sound standard so that pedestrians would be aware of vehicles in their vicinity and take reasonable precautions to avoid contact. What was needed was an addition to the law governing sound emissions by vehicles, a law that called for vehicles to be as quiet as they could safely be, but no quieter.
When the law was passed, it called for the issuance of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to be issued no later than eighteen months after its passage. The purpose of an NPRM is to alert interested parties about what the regulations for new laws will look like, offering a chance for those with an interest to comment on and influence how the final regulations will be crafted and the law enforced. But NHTSA did not issue a proposal by July 1 of 2012. That meant that the final rule that should have been issued by January 4, 2014, did not come out. The NPRM wasn't published until January 10, 2013, the agency arguing that the complexity of the issue and the research required meant that the time frames in the law for implementation could not be met. The NFB made our response to the NPRM in March 2013, and it wasn’t until December 2016 that the final rule, the one which was supposed to be published in January 2014, was issued. In the interim the United States Department of Transportation commissioned a study to determine how many hybrid electric vehicles were being sold in this country, and that study concluded that, on average, 1,563 are sold each day. These cars are not yet covered by the act or its regulations; luckily some manufacturers have seen the writing on the wall and have implemented systems to provide sound alerts. Although they may not comply with the regulations that have now been published, their presence is welcomed by those of us who regularly place our faith in safely crossing streets on what we hear.
So which vehicles are covered by the law and which by the regulations? What are the key points of each? We make a distinction between the law and the regulations because the regulations are not just a detailed prescription of how to implement the law, but differ from it in some significant ways. We are left to speculate as to why, but the rumor has been floated that differences exist because of insufficient data to support detailed regulations as envisioned in the law and that when such data becomes available the regulations may be modified accordingly.
Here are the main points you should know about the act as it will be implemented: only four-wheeled vehicles weighing less than 10,000 pounds are covered, meaning commercial trucks and motorcycles have been excluded. They are part of the law but not the regulations.
Fifty percent of vehicles produced after September 1, 2018, and 100 percent of vehicles produced after September 1, 2019, must meet the sound standard.
One issue that sparked significant debate even among allies for the law was whether there should be a switch that the driver could use to disable the audible alerts it mandates. We were opposed to what in the industry is called a pause switch, but what has come to be called a kill switch by the blind. For us the issue is simple: the ability to hear a quiet car should not depend on the judgment of the driver as to whether or not a usable sound should be emitted by his vehicle. This would be equivalent to allowing a driver to make his car invisible simply because he believed he wouldn't encounter pedestrians, animals, or other cars along his journey.
In the current regulation there is no selectable sound from which a car owner may choose, though the law clearly allows for a set of selectable sounds so long as those sounds are provided and certified by the manufacturer to meet the minimum sound standard. Although research indicated that duplicating the sound of a standard internal combustion engine would be the most identifiable sound by the greatest number of pedestrians, it also demonstrated that the sounds were not the most effective in penetrating the noise found in most rural and urban environments. Both pedestrians and automobile manufacturers were concerned that leaving the sound that a vehicle would make to the discretion of automobile owners could lead to situations in which a vehicle would not be identified as a danger to be avoided. Discussions on blogs indicated that if owners were allowed to select their own sound, some would choose the sound of a carousel, some an ice cream truck, and some the clatter of horseshoes. An arbitrary sound just would not do to provide certainty in identification. But a second concern was from the manufacturers. It was that a sound provided by a driver might be considered offensive, and the result would be the rejection by the public of all sounds. This would reflect negatively on the manufacturers, the law, and the pedestrians it was designed to protect.
In the law provisions were made for vehicles to come with several selectable sounds from which the driver of a quiet car could choose, but the regulations make no provision for these other than to say that a 2020 Toyota Prius will sound like every other 2020 Toyota Prius. The same is true for a 2019 Chevrolet Volt.
One point of contention between pedestrians and car manufacturers was whether a vehicle should emit some sound when not in motion. The car companies contended that where there was no motion there was no danger. The Federation took the strongly held position that knowing of a car's presence at a traffic light, a four-way stop, or any other kind of intersection was essential whether that car was moving or at rest. An informed decision to cross requires that one be aware not only of vehicles on the move but vehicles that are waiting for the opportunity to move. Both the law and the regulation make it clear that a vehicle is to emit a sound while stopped, but the regulation does provide that no sound need be made if the vehicle is in park.
Although most hybrid electric vehicles do not use a manual transmission, those which do must make sound any time the key is on and the parking brake is off. While we would have preferred that a quiet car make some sound when the driver’s seat is occupied, we have gotten most of what we wanted in this section of the regulation, and it is a far cry from what some of the manufacturers were demanding, provisions which, had they been adopted, would have done much to negate the safety issues spawning the creation of the law.
How loud must a vehicle sound be? From stationary to less than ten km/h [kilometers per hour], it must create a sound that is at least forty-four decibels. A moving vehicle going from ten km/h up to less than twenty km/h must generate a sound of at least fifty-one decibels. From twenty to less than thirty km/h, the vehicle must generate a sound of at least fifty-seven decibels. At thirty to thirty-two km/h the sound emitted must be sixty-two decibels. For vehicles traveling in reverse, a sound of forty-eight decibels is required. These figures were based on significant testing by NHTSA, and only time will reveal whether the published levels are appropriate to provide an adequate and reliable warning for pedestrians, particularly those who are blind.
With traditional internal combustion engines most of the sound generated by a slow-moving vehicle comes from the engine itself. At some point, no matter how a vehicle is powered, the majority of the sound comes from wind and tire noise. This is defined in the act as the “crossover speed.” With quiet cars the issue that had to be negotiated was when the artificial sound could be stopped, and the sound from the movement of the vehicle would be sufficient. The rule as it stands today says that the electronically generated sound must continue until a vehicle reaches thirty-two kilometers, or 19.88 miles, per hour. From the perspective of the NFB this is good news, a lower crossover speed would have been preferred by the car companies. What complicates arriving at any fixed number is the commendable attempt by the industry to reduce tire friction and wind resistance to increase how far a vehicle can travel with a specific amount of energy. When tire friction and wind resistance change, so too does the sound generated. Numbers that are used today may be irrelevant tomorrow, so again we may have to reevaluate these sound levels as we gain experience with new cars coming off the assembly line.
In negotiating what sounds a vehicle should make, blind people were committed to the idea that pitch shifting should be part of the car's sound emission. Pitch shifting is an easy way to detect acceleration and deceleration, and it is commonly heard with internal combustion engines. Although this provision was a part of the NPRM, it is not found in the law or the final regulation. Experience will again be required before we can say definitively whether the change in volume/amplitude will be sufficient to tell us what a vehicle is doing. If it is, the law can stand as is. If not, this may be something for which we press in future legislation.
The car companies have filed a petition for reconsideration to extend by one year the time by which they must fully comply with the law. Their argument is that the law envisioned a longer time in which to comply than does the regulation. If their petition is granted, it will be 2020 before full compliance is required. While we understand the need for protection and the frustration of having watched as six years have passed, and knowing that every day we extend that compliance date is one more day in which vehicles are manufactured which make blind and sighted pedestrians vulnerable to stealth vehicles, we must freely admit that the law did offer a three-year timeframe for compliance. We have to acknowledge that if we were on the other side and the regulations suggested a longer period for implementation than the law states, we might be the ones appealing for a change.
As complicated as all of this is, some points stand out clearly and require little explanation: we are the organization that brought this to the attention of the press, the industry, the public, and finally those who exercise the levers of power in the government. We have worked to turn a two-page law, which necessarily speaks in broad, guiding generalities, into a 375-page rule that seeks to be specific enough that manufacturers know precisely how to do what they must to make the streets safer for pedestrians. We have first sought to do this in the United States but are working to get standards that apply worldwide for pedestrians, no matter where they may live. No issue so clearly demonstrates our commitment to safe and independent travel, and no issue has tested our perseverance more than this one. At first we had no allies. The quiet car enthusiasts wanted less noise pollution, so they dismissed our concerns in favor of a quieter environment. The car companies started by denying there was a problem but eventually came to work with us. Bloggers asked why blind people would be so negligent as to attempt traveling by ourselves, and some even suggested that if we had no more common sense than this, it might be better for the intelligence of the world if we were no longer a part of it. But we know who we are, we will never go back, and we knew that with persistence, ongoing education, the goodwill of the public, and the dogged determination to see this through from start to finish, we would prevail. Keep following these pages for further details, but take some time to celebrate what it means to be a vital part of the National Federation of the Blind.