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Hybrids: “Silent Danger” for Many New Yorkers

December 1, 2008

New York, NY — As more cities in New York state go "green" with new quiet-running, cleaner-technology hybrid buses, there is an unintended consequence — danger to pedestrians. The new buses, as well as other hybrid vehicles, in use in Albany, Rochester and Manhattan are so quiet that some sort of signature "engine" sound may have to be added to protect pedestrians, especially those with poor and no vision.

Karen Luxton Gourgey is the director of the Computer Center for Visually Impaired Peopleat Baruch College of the City Univeristy of New York. She says this problem needs federal attention.

"When they're not emitting sound, our environmental cues are lost. So, especially for those of us with low, or no vision, it's a huge threat to safe, independent travel."

The next Congress is expected to re-introduce the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act (HR 5734). Gourgey says that measure would mandate funding and coordinate research to add a signature sound to hybrid vehicles.

A group called the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society is investigating people's reactions to horns, whistles, white noise and even engine sounds that could be added to hybrids. Gourgey says lawmakers are considering giving researchers two years to come up with the right sound to provide the clearest warning.

"We need a sound standard, so that carmakers know what to do; we can get the research done as to what's going to be the most effective kind of sound — how loud does it have to be? What ought it to sound like?"

So far, research indicates the most popular choice for hybrids is some sort of artificial engine sound. Gourgey says even sighted people rely heavily on their hearing to know that a bus or car is approaching.

Michael Clifford/Mike Clifford, Public News Service - NY