Joseph Donahey normally hates noise, perhaps because he spent years in a quiet courtroom as a 6th Judicial Circuit judge. But since Donahey went blind and started trying to cross city streets using his white cane, he has developed an appreciation for traffic noise. In fact, he'd like to hear more of it.
Hybrid cars, Donahey says, are too quiet and present a deadly threat to blind people who depend on their ears to tell them when a car is approaching. The frightening reality, for Donahey and other blind people, is that when they step out into a crosswalk with their cane extended, a hybrid car may be right on top of them and they can't hear it.
Washington and the automotive industry finally seem to agree, after several years of lobbying by advocates for the blind, that quiet hybrid vehicles — some blind people call them "stealth vehicles" — are such a hazard to pedestrians that something must be done. A bill introduced in Congress, the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, would direct the federal government to study and establish a standard for alerting blind and other pedestrians to the presence of a motor vehicle. Meanwhile, the automotive industry is taking on the issue voluntarily.
The New York Times reported last month that some automakers are considering installing speakers in the front bumpers of cars that would emit a noise pedestrians could hear as the vehicles approach them. What kind of noise? Everything from music to a sound that mimics a regular gas engine to the roar of a Formula One race car. Some automakers are even toying with giving drivers a choice of sounds. Motorists could choose their "car tones" just as they choose the ringtones on their cell phones.
Some auto executives have pooh-poohed such ideas, saying they labored too long at making cars quieter to now start loading them with artificial noisemakers.
Donahey, 75, isn't so sure that it's a good idea for motorists to choose their own car tunes. He would prefer that all hybrids and electric cars have the same unique sound that would be easily recognized by blind people, who are trained to safely cross streets by using their ears.
Donahey was not born blind. In 1999 he woke up blind from back surgery that had gone horribly awry. A judge at the time, he not only had to find ways to do his job, he had to be trained in how to use a white cane and safely traverse streets.
He recalls the training he received for crossing city streets.He was taught to stand at a corner and listen through several changes of the light until he was sure he had figured out how the traffic moved, then to thrust out his cane and step assertively off the curb.
He did that on his first extensive outing on the streets of downtown Clearwater, only to hear noise and a screech. He had stuck his cane through the spokes of a bicycle wheel as a young bicyclist was rounding the corner. No one was seriously injured, but the incident illustrates the importance of being able to hear an approaching vehicle.
Donahey often takes walks around his gated North Pinellas neighborhood, but he is more nervous about it since discovering that someone in the neighborhood drives a hybrid. He was alerted to that fact when he started across a street, sure no traffic was coming, and then heard the sound of rubber tires stopping on the pavement near him. There was no engine sound at all, he said.
Universities and traffic safety organizations have conducted tests involving hybrid vehicles and have found that at low speeds, hybrids can drive circles around a blind person without that person even knowing the cars are there.
Hybrid vehicles have two propulsion systems, one electric and the other a standard internal combustion engine. When just the battery is engaged, usually at low speeds, the cars are virtually silent.
And though blind people are most vulnerable, it turns out that even pedestrians with normal vision are at risk, because they make decisions about when to cross a street or walk between parked cars not just on what they see, but on what they hear. If they don't hear a car coming, they may not see it.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a study in September that compared pedestrian accident statistics for hybrid electric vehicles with gasoline-powered vehicles. The study found that in low-speed situations where a car was slowing, stopping, backing up, or entering or leaving a parking space, the hybrid electric vehicle was two times more likely to be involved in a pedestrian accident. The rate also was higher when vehicles were turning.
Donahey said the challenges for sight-impaired pedestrians are especially daunting in states that allow a right turn on red. The blind pedestrian hears the car beside him come to a stop and starts out, but the driver, meanwhile, is turning right on red. Too few motorists are aware of a Florida law that requires motorists to stop when they see a pedestrian with a white cane waiting to cross a street.
Donahey, who retired from the bench in 2002, has conquered many difficult challenges since suddenly losing his sight, but crossing streets in busy Pinellas County continues to be uncomfortable for him. However, there is one positive to his experience. Kind people so often see him standing uncertainly and step forward to help, he said. Their offer of an elbow and an escort across the street brings immeasurable comfort to someone who can't see — or in some cases, hear — what's coming.
Diane Steinle is editor of editorials of the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times.