Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Hybrid cars, a growing problem for the visually impaired

The soaring popularity of hybrid cars is a growing problem for the visually impaired.Since 2000, the U.S. hybrid market has grown almost 2500%. According to one study, it's gone from about 9400 passenger car sales in 2000 to almost 250,000 in 2006. While that total still represents just over 1% of all new car sales, industry analysts predict it could jump to as high as 30% by 2015. And that has some advocates for the blind concerned.

Hybrids may be great for the environment, but they aren't always great for pedestrians -- especially those who are blind or visually impaired.The reason? They're too quiet.Low Vision Council President Michelle Mason uses a cane when crossing the street. She also listens for car motors to tell when it's safe, which is why she says hybrids pose a potentially deadly hazard for the visually impaired. The problem? Hybrids are too quiet.

"If a hybrid was making a left turn over here," says Mason, "and there was a person with a visual impairment, they wouldn't know. And if the driver wasn't paying attention, you could have an accident occur."Hybrids are significantly quieter than traditional cars, especially when idling or running at low speeds. Mason says currently most Central Coast streets are not pedestrian-friendly. She expects it will get even worse as hybrids grow in popularity. That's why she's advocating for more pedestrian-friendly signals.

Located at Santa Barbara and Upham in San Luis Obispo, Mason says this is the only audio signal in the entire county. The $8,000 signal is supposed to emit an additional sound, but city staffers say they turned it off because a nearby restaurant complained about the noise.While it's unlikely they'll be added downtown because the signals are timed to keep traffic flowing, staff say it's now a city standard to use them at new signals."It's just a new thing coming out, you know," says City Traffic Engineer Dario Senor.

"That's why you don't see them all over yet. But you should. And we will."Advocates like Mason hope they come sooner rather than later, especially with more of these potentially silent hazards hitting the road.Advocates want manufacturers to build hybrids so they emit some sort of sound. However, manufacturers are reluctant to do something that adds noise pollution.City traffic engineers say an audio traffic signal costs $8,000 to install.


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