Silent but deadly - are electric cars a menace?

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Stop, look and listen – it’s a familiar road safety message. But what if you can’t hear a car approaching? What if the car is an electric or hybrid vehicle that makes almost no sound? The number of electric and hybrid cars on our roads is rising: sales were up almost fourfold in 2014 to 14,498, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. We’ve all been encouraged to go green by plug-in grants towards the purchase price of cars such as the Nissan Leaf and the Toyota Prius. And if your car has zero emissions, you’ll pay zero vehicle excise duty.

Safety implications

But campaigners are concerned about the safety implications of silent but potentially deadly vehicles. And no wonder. Electric and hybrid vehicles are 40% more likely to be involved in an accident, and incidents involving quiet cars increased by 54% from 2012-2013. Quiet cars are a potential threat to all pedestrians, but blind and partially sighted people are particularly vulnerable. Sound is also key for the safety of cyclists, horse riders and road maintenance crews.

Near misses

Paralympian Libby Clegg has had two near misses with quiet vehicles. She says: “As a guide dog owner I rely on being able to hear cars to judge when it’s safe to cross the road. “It’s terrifying to cross when you’re unable to hear quiet hybrid and electric vehicles.” Soundless vehicles cannot only cause physical harm, but they can also shatter confidence. Jennifer Keen, the Guide Dogs’ charity’s spokeswoman, says: “It’s not just about accidents, it’s about perceptions and about near misses. So, if somebody loses their sight they will often lose a lot of their confidence to go out by themselves.”

Sound levels

The average street in the UK produces sound at about 70 decibels, but a quiet car generates between 30 and 50 decibels. In other words, it is hard to hear an electric car above the normal hustle and bustle of the street. Studies by the University of California suggest that some electric and hybrid vehicles cannot be heard until one second before impact with a pedestrian, allowing no time to react to potential danger.

Crossing pedestrians

Audibility is particularly important at low speeds when cars often closer to pedestrians, for example manoeuvring in a car park or near a crossing in a city centre. The danger is confirmed by research conducted by the Warwick Manufacturing Group as part of the Electric Vehicles with Sounds project (ELVES). It found that “during certain low-speed manoeuvres, an electric vehicle is more than twice as likely to be involved in an incident with a pedestrian than a car powered by a conventional gasoline or diesel engine”.

AVAS, me hearties

Last year, the European Parliament voted to introduce mandatory acoustic vehicle alerting systems (AVAS), which mimic the sound of a conventional engine. All new electric and hybrid cars must be fitted with an AVAS by 2021 to protect vulnerable road users. The legislation follows lobbying from British MEPs and campaign groups including Guide Dogs. But does it go far enough?

Out of sight

Keen says: “We’re delighted the European Union has recognised the problems quiet vehicles cause for pedestrians who can’t hear them coming, but the regulation does not go nearly far enough. “New quiet vehicles will not have to be fitted with an artificial sound generator until 2021. This is too late to protect blind and partially sighted pedestrians. “The other major problem with the regulation is that the artificial sound generator will be fitted with a pause switch, allowing the driver to turn it off as they choose. “This will make it void as a safety feature.”

Pause press

Guide Dogs wants the government to make the pause switch illegal on UK roads. It is also calling for artificial sound generators to be a precondition of state subsidies to the electric and hybrid vehicle market. In the meantime, we will all have to stop, look and listen very hard when we are crossing the road. You can support the Guide Dogs’ Safe and Sound campaign by visiting the website

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