The government is seeking international agreement on rules that would force car manufacturers to reduce the threat of their near-silent electric vehicles to the safety of blind pedestrians, a Liberal Democrat minister has announced.
Two months ago, a report for the government by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) downplayed the risk caused by quiet electric and hybrid vehicles to the safety of partially-sighted and blind pedestrians.
The Department for Transport (DfT) said then that a decision on whether manufacturers would be forced to add artificial noise to their electric and hybrid vehicles would be taken at European Union (EU) level.
The DfT said at the time that the TRL research would feed into the EU’s work, and that the government had yet to decide whether adding noise was a good idea.
But transport minister Norman Baker told a fringe meeting at this week’s party conference that the government was “on the case” and was trying to secure an “international agreement” on what level of sound would be needed, and what the sound itself would be.
He said this was a better approach than individual countries creating their own rules, which would just raise costs.
He told the meeting: “We are fully seized that there is the need for a sound with an electric vehicle.”
Blind and partially-sighted people have increasingly raised concerns about the environmentally-friendly vehicles because they say they are often impossible to hear approaching.
Engine noise can provide an indication of a vehicle’s speed, whether it is accelerating or decelerating, and how close it is to the pedestrian.
Jill Allen-King, chair of the European Blind Union’s commission on mobility and transport, welcomed the government’s new position.
She believes the issue is one of the two most important access and transport problems facing blind people across the world, together with shared space developments in town centres.
She has been among those blind campaigners who raised the electric vehicle issue with Baker this summer.
She added: “I welcome [the announcement] but they just need to make sure they put it into practice.”
The TRL report said accident statistics from 2005-2008 were inconclusive on whether electric and hybrid vehicles pose more of a risk to partially-sighted and blind pedestrians than cars with regular internal combustion engines.
But TRL’s own experiments with partially-sighted pedestrians in a semi-rural setting showed the risk was 1.4 times greater, and 1.3 times greater in urban conditions, while electric and hybrid vehicles were “far more difficult to detect” than normal engines at the “lowest steady speed and when pulling away from rest at the lowest speed”.