August 2010

If it smells like trouble

By David Feela

There is an executive director for strategic initiatives with the National Federation for the Blind. It may be that his job involves sitting quietly for hours in an office, thinking up initiatives, then deciding if they are strategic enough. I don't actually know if this is the case, but according to news reports John Pare supports a new plan to introduce artificial noises into the low-decibel emissions that hybrids generate at low speeds. The idea may have appealed to him during one of his quiet periods.

Apparently lawmakers in Congress have been spending too much quiet time too. They want to add sound-performance requirements for hybrids and electric cars to an auto-safety bill that is being considered in the wake of massive Toyota recalls. Automakers support the idea, because automakers helped Congress write the hybrid legislation. They are already experimenting with chirps, whirs, and who knows what — maybe even quacks— for new models like the Leaf and the Volt.

Poetically, the measure in Congress ought to be required to move forward only by silent vote. Hybrids account for 2 percent of the car sales in America. They are the silent minority of what constitutes America's obese fleet of transportation. For researchers and safety groups to suggest that hybrids pose any serious risk to pedestrians and the blind because they are so quiet is equivalent to swatting at butterflies.

A friend who works almost exclusively on Harley Davidson motorcycles told me of a bumper sticker that's been around for quite some time within the ranks of Harley riders: Loud Pipes Save Lives. By this standard, Harleys ought to qualify as the safest vehicles on the road. I've been thinking of designing a sticker for my hybrid: Silent Killer! A total of 4,300 pedestrians were killed in 2008 in auto/pedestrian clashes. Obviously, the car always wins in situations like these, and the bigger the vehicle, the more serious the damage. Why else would heavy-duty construction equipment come equipped with a standardized back-up noise, or trains with horns that can remove hair implants at 500 feet?

There is no research to suggest that hybrids are involved in a disproportionate number of pedestrian accidents, just as there is no data to justify spending a few more million dollars to study whether the bicyclers should be reclassified as the ultimate silent creeps.

When I was a kid, I used my mother's clothespins to clip baseball cards to my fenders so they would flap against my bicycle spokes. I pretended the noise that issued from my rolling bicycle was an engine. The more noise, the better. That's how children think.

Hearing is not, scientifically speaking, the most powerful sensory input a human has available. Smell reportedly triggers far more memories, deeper awarenesses, and is perceived more readily by the average person. If we are bureaucratically determined to introduce a safety measure for hybrids, let's consider aromas. Chevrolet could deploy the sharp scent of ozone as their Volt discharges and Nissan's Leaf could release a fresh glade aroma. As other car manufacturers design a new generation of electrics and hybrids, an extensive list of possible olfactory-installed incentives can be added: cotton candy, grilled steak, freshly brewed coffee.

There's no reason why the blind have to go it alone. Their short-sighted pedestrian counterparts would breathe easier at the intersection too, while staying safe.

I know I'm barking into the wind, because loudness is a way of life, especially in America. It makes sense to keep the peace of mind that hybrids and electrics have introduced into our gas-guzzling petroleum-based carnival of commerce. Drivers are already required to wear the seat belts. Ought we require pedestrians to wear hearing aids?

David Feela writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.