How many lives is a little peace and quiet worth?

Rear end of a hybrid

Photo credit: “Hybrid Butt,” Flickr/Burning Image

One of the side benefits to hybrid cars — and presumably to future electric cars that run mostly off batteries — is that they’re much quieter than standard cars with combustion engines.

Problem: blind people can’t necessarily hear them coming.

An Inland-area researcher says hybrids operating at very slow speeds pose a danger to the blind, runners, cyclists, small children and others.

“I think it’s a serious problem,” says Lawrence Rosenblum a perceptual psychologist at UCR. “But the solution is so straight-forward and so unobtrusive, there’s absolutely no reason that this problem shouldn’t be solved.”

A device could emit the subtle sound of a quiet combustion engine mixed with the whoosh of a waterfall, alerting the blind that a hybrid vehicle is nearby, he says.

Recent testing at UCR showed how pedestrians perceived the quiet hybrids.

With background noise from cars idling nearby, subjects couldn’t determine the location of a slow-moving Toyota Prius hybrid until it was within one second or 7 feet of their location, Rosenblum said. For nonhybrids, it was 28 feet from subjects’ location.

That said, the same piece notes that no actual blind people have been reported killed by hybrid cars in the last five years. Six are fatally struck by other vehicles in a typical year. So we’re talking about a fairly theoretical problem, albeit one that might turn into a real one as hybids and electric-engine cars become more popular.

That said, I’m not sure that requiring hybrids to make a racket is automatically the right answer to this problem, given the significant quality-of-life problems created by internal combustion engines in cities now. I used to live on Bank Street, a fairly major Ottawa artery, and eventually the traffic sounds started to drive me batty (at first they bothered me; then I stopped noticing them; then around year three I began to go nuts). When we were looking for a house to buy, we instantly rejected an otherwise gorgeous place that turned out to be so close to a highway you couldn’t have a conversation on the front step.

Do these concerns, even multiplied by the hundreds of millions of people for whom being struck by a quiet hybrid is not an immediate threat, balance the potential risk to the lives of a small but non-zero number of blind people? We certainly decide that convenience and economic utility are worth thousands of deaths a year.

One thing I know for sure: our traditional public-policy decision-making mechanisms are ill-equipped to answer that question.

(Via The Green Life.)


2 responses to “How many lives is a little peace and quiet worth?

  1. Well, if you need a noisemaker, I want mine to make tie fighter sounds.

  2. Hmmm…. This researcher apparently hasn’t bothered to point out that it is the DRIVER’s responsibility to watch out for pedestrians (blind or sighted…) and that in most states the law REQUIRES drivers to stop to allow blind people (usually self identified by canes and / or dogs) to cross…

    This sounds to me like a responsibility copout, with a very NON-Libertarian solution…

    Ironically, in the motorcyclists rights community, one battle is over exhaust noise, with one side advocating that “Loud pipes save lives” because car drivers can hear them – with the opposition complaining about the noise being a tresspass. Now this guy wants to FORCE owners of quiet vehicles to be committing a tresspass???!

    LPMA Operations Facilitator

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