Pedestrian safety law will drive 'noisier' hybrid cars

Kathryn Hawkins

As gas prices remain high and Americans become more environmentally conscious, the hybrid and electric car industry is growing. More stringent standards for vehicle fuel efficiency are expected to drive even more growth.

Although hybrid and electric cars are far more fuel-efficient than cars with traditional combustible engines, they do have one significant problem. Because their engines are relatively quiet, they pose a safety hazard to pedestrians, cyclists and sight-impaired people, who may be less aware of the quieter cars.

A 2009 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that hybrid and electric cars slowing down, backing up or moving into or out of parking spaces were twice as likely to be involved in crashes compared with combustible-engine cars. Likewise, when traveling below 25 miles per hour, a hybrid car must be 40 percent closer to a pedestrian than a combustible-engine car for that pedestrian to determine the car's direction, according to a 2008 University of California, Riverside, research project financed by the National Federation of the Blind.

To combat this hazard, the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2010 will require hybrid and electric car manufacturers to add sounds that activate when the cars are traveling at low speeds. It's good news for pedestrians and cyclists, but how will the new law affect hybrid drivers?

New technology

The highway traffic safety agency is working with the federal Volpe National Transportation Systems Center to develop synthetic sounds that will alert pedestrians and cyclists to oncoming hybrid and electric cars. The federal agency's deadline for an approved system is 2014; after then, manufacturers will be required to install the technology in new models. Some hybrid and electric car manufacturers already are developing custom alert systems in advance of the regulations.

The Nissan Leaf, for example, produces a "whooshing" sound when it's traveling at low speeds, while the Chevrolet Volt, another electric car, makes a "chirping" sound, says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In the fall of 2010, Toyota began offering an optional electronic humming device for the Prius that sounds like a standard car engine. The Prius noisemaker is available only in Japan, but the manufacturer may sell it in the United States.

Right now, drivers can choose to activate or deactivate their noisemakers. Under the new law, however, some form of noise alert will be mandatory, Rader says.

The effect on prices

Because the new safety requirements have yet to be determined, it's too early to tell what effect the new law will have on hybrid and electric car prices and on car insurance premiums. Insuring hybrid and electric cars already is pricey because they're expensive to fix.

But the value of parts for a hybrid or electric car isn't the only thing contributing to higher car insurance rates.

For example, hybrid drivers typically drive more miles than other drivers, increasing their likelihood of getting into accidents. According to a 2008 Quality Planning survey, hybrid owners who used their cars for purposes other than commuting to and from work average 2,000 more miles a year than other car owners.

“Losses experienced by particular makes and models are the main factors that influence insurance costs,” Rader says. “Hybrid and electric cars tend to have higher insurance losses than their gasoline-only counterparts.”

Yet if the soon-to-be-mandatory noisemakers are successful in decreasing collisions, hybrid and electric car drivers probably will have better driving records. A clean driving record, in turn, usually means lower insurance rates.

Consumer reactions

Charlie Belmer, a Prius owner from Atlanta, is concerned about the effect the law might have on his next hybrid car purchase.

"I spend a fair amount of time sitting at stoplights or in traffic with the motor off, and pedestrians never wander near my car in these situations, meaning the main recipient of the sound would be me," he says. "I love the green image, saving money on gas and everything else about the Prius, but constant buzzing at stoplights or in traffic could be a deal breaker."

Chantay Bridges, a Los Angeles real estate agent, loves her hybrid car and never has had any close calls with pedestrian or cyclists. Nonetheless, she favors the new law.

"I strongly support any mechanism that can enhance the lives of the disabled," she says.

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