European Blind Union: A car crash waiting to happen?

By Dan Pescod, Campaigns Manager, RNIB.

Have you had a near-miss, or worse, with an electric or so-called “hybrid” (part electric, part internal combustion engine) car? I have! The stealthy vehicle almost got me as I crossed a road! I just did not hear it coming.

The numbers of such cars are growing yearly as drivers switch to potentially greener, quieter means of transport.

EBU and the World Blind Union (WBU) are not against “electric” vehicles at all. They could mean less polluted, “greener” streets. However, we know from both first-hand experience and recent research that without an adequate warning sound, electric vehicles can be a muted menace for pedestrians and for blind and partially sighted people in particular.

For instance, Guide Dogs for the Blind in the UK commissioned research which found that electric cars were 40% more likely to be involved in a collision with pedestrians than conventional cars.

Some readers will recall that EBU lobbied for new EU regulations on vehicle sound to require an appropriate sound warning on electric and hybrid cars. (Regulation (EU) No 540/2014 on the sound level of motor vehicles).

In this task we were partially successful. However, the final regulation is less than perfect, not least because it allows manufacturers to install a switch which drivers can use to turn off the warning sound.

For some time, the United Nations Economic Mission for Europe, UNECE, has been drafting its own global regulation on sound warnings for electric and hybrid vehicles. When complete, the regulation will apply in many countries across the world, including those which are key markets for car manufacturers. Its specifications would be integrated into the EU’s regulation on sound levels mentioned above. As such, UNECE provides an opportunity to try to strengthen the EU regulation and in doing so help to protect blind, partially sighted and indeed other pedestrians in Europe.

In February, therefore, EBU members gathered in Berlin for a meeting, kindly hosted by DBSV and led by Jessica Schroeder, to learn about the UNECE process and discuss action on silent cars both nationally and internationally. The meeting was expertly led by the Fred Schroeder, First Vice President, and John Paré, who have been leading on the matter for some time for the World Blind Union.

Following on from this, WBU and EBU will shortly hold the second European Summit on the Dangers Posed by Silent Vehicles, hosted by the Austrian Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted, in Vienna, Austria on the 8th June, 2015. If you wish to attend, contact the EBU office for further details.

Following Berlin, in March EBU sent a delegate to a high-level meeting of UNECE where the matter of its draft regulation was on the agenda. We spoke for the World Blind Union; underlining three main elements we believe the regulation needs to contain to protect pedestrian safety:

  1. A safe level of sound, clearly audible to blind and partially sighted pedestrians. The sound level needs to be the result of analysis by sound and safety experts using objective data. We said it was difficult to believe that a sound which is so much quieter than an internal combustion engine will provide sufficient audio warning, and we expressed concern about the proposed sound level for cars travelling at 20 kilometres per hour. We maintained that the sound should effectively indicate the presence, location and movement of a vehicle.
  2. A requirement for a warning sound at stationary. We said that awareness of the presence of a vehicle that may begin moving at any moment is essential for safety.
  3. There should be no possibility for a so-called pause switch by which the driver could turn off the warning sound. We stated that the audio warning system (known in the jargon as “AVAS”) is a safety device and there are no other safety devices that the driver may disable: brake lights, airbags, etc. A driver cannot really know at what moment he or she will encounter a pedestrian, and so when it might theoretically be “safe” to dispense with the AVAS warning sound.

At the time of writing, these three criteria are not met by the draft UNECE regulation. It was therefore most heartening that the chair of the meeting, Mr Kisulenko from Russia, said in response that he expected the working group drafting the regulations to meet our concerns. We used Twitter to spread this good news, and UNECE itself re-tweeted our message.

The next meeting of the working group which is devising the regulation will happen in Seoul in May. WBU will attend, and EBU will be contacting our national members in the committee to urge them to ensure our needs are met in the revised draft regulation.

There will be higher-level meetings later in the year as the UNECE regulation-drafting process comes to an end. Time is therefore short if we are to achieve the outcome we need, and there is much work to do.

We need all EBU members to therefore play their part in advocating for safe electric and hybrid cars. We have a golden opportunity this year to help make the streets of tomorrow safer for us all. Let’s try to seize it, so that not only are our streets greener, but also safer, for us all.

Sign the petition organised by Guide Dogs UK , asking the UN to ensure that electric and hybrid vehicles are audible to ensure the safety of all pedestrians.

Full article.