Car manufacturers must be forced to adapt their near-silent electric vehicles so they no longer pose such a serious threat to the safety of blind pedestrians, say campaigners.
A new report for the government downplays the risk caused by quiet electric and hybrid vehicles to the safety of partially-sighted and blind pedestrians.
But blind and partially-sighted people are increasingly concerned 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, took part last year in tests in France of a new electric vehicle for a major manufacturer.
She said: “I just couldn’t hear it and my hearing is good. I said I was absolutely adamant that they have got to do something.”
She said the two most important access and transport issues for blind people across the world were the risks caused by electric cars and shared street developments, in which kerbs are removed so motorists and pedestrians have to share the street space.
She said: “These are the two issues we have got to fight, because otherwise, with shared spaces and electric vehicles, blind people will just not stand a chance.
“We recognise the value of environmentally-friendly vehicles but they have got to put a sound on all the electric vehicles, otherwise they will just be killing us off.”
The new report, by the Transport Research Laboratory, says accident statistics from 2005-2008 are 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 its own experiments with 10 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”.
Despite these results, the report concludes that while there may be a “potential risk”, the “scale of the problem is currently very small”, while moves to impose minimum noise limits would be “challenging”.
Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat transport minister, said the government was “committed to the introduction of electric vehicles in a way that will complement the department’s long-standing efforts to protect vulnerable road users”.
But a Department for Transport spokeswoman said 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.
She said the new research would feed into the EU’s work, but the government had yet to decide whether adding noise was a good idea.
Allen-King now plans to write to Baker, to her own MP and to David Blunkett MP, who is blind, to call for action.