Blind Canadians say new rules for putting sound on electric vehicles don’t go far enough

Blind Canadians say Transport Canada’s proposed requirement that electric vehicles (EVs) make a warning sound for pedestrians is a good start, but they think the sound should be standardized.

Unlike the United States and Europe, Canada does not currently require electric vehicles to produce sound when traveling at low speeds.

Transport Canada has proposed requiring all hybrid and electric cars to have sound emitters when driving at low speeds in April 2021. This regulation is expected to come into force in 2023, but this regulation allows manufacturers to choose their own sounds.

While minimum standards would have to be met, « manufacturers would be free to choose the type of sound they apply to their vehicle, » Transport Canada wrote in an emailed statement.

Vehicles without an internal combustion engine make little noise other than the noises of wind resistance and rubber tires against the road. On a city street with ambient noise, they may be impossible to audibly detect.

Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) Director of Regulatory Affairs Lui Greco says blind and visually impaired people depend on the distinct sounds of vehicles to navigate safely.

With combustion engines, « you can hear the car go, whether it’s stopping or slowly picking up speed, » Greco said.

Without these recognizable clues, he says many people who are blind or partially sighted will be afraid to go out into the community. Pedestrian warning sounds required for electric vehicles need to be standardized, he said.

“City streets are busy, noisy and hectic environments… so it is essential that the sound emitted by an electric vehicle as it slows down or speeds up is identifiable.”

Greco says these regulations could also benefit cyclists and people who might get distracted while walking. Making electric vehicles louder helps get the attention of « anyone who isn’t necessarily watching traffic, » he said.

« They really can’t hear me »

Many of the electric vehicles currently on Canadian roads generate some kind of sound at low speeds or when reversing, but many older models lack these features.

Mark Cayer said his electric vehicle was so quiet it worried him. Cayer’s 2018 Volkswagen e-Golf lacks any kind of audible pedestrian safety measures. He started rolling the windows down and turning up the volume on the radio to compensate for this.

« For people with low vision, people who are blind and walkers…it can be very dangerous not being able to hear the car at all, » said Cayer, a member of the Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa.

Cayer said switching to an electric vehicle prompted him to become a more conscientious driver.

« I always watch for pedestrians and people coming on bikes from behind. I’m aware that they really can’t hear me. »

He said it should be mandatory for electric vehicles to emit some kind of sound at low speeds to warn pedestrians.

Mark Cayer says he’s worried pedestrians won’t hear his electric vehicle because it operates so quietly. (Michelle Allan/CBC)

Mandatory or optional pedestrian warning systems

Paul Camire drives for Uber in his 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV. He said his car has an audible pedestrian alert speaker that activates at low speeds.

« Below 20 kilometers per hour it feels like a hush. »

Camire, who spends the majority of his day driving at low speeds while ferrying his passengers around Ottawa, said he turned off the sound because it bothered him.

He added that part of the reason he bought an electric vehicle was to avoid contributing to « noise pollution ». Constant and excessive noise, such as that caused by gas-powered cars, can have negative effects on people and wildlife over time.

Camire says he disagrees with the proposed settlement, but would support voluntary warning devices like pedestrian horns.

Pedestrian horns emit more of a short beep than standard horns and are intended to audibly warn pedestrians in a non-surprising manner. « I really, really like this concept and wish more cars had adopted it instead of the mandatory buzzer. »

Greco said security measures should not be optional.

« We had the same discussion when seat belts became mandatory, » Greco said. “The lives of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users could be in jeopardy if they simply choose to turn off their [pedestrian warning] system. »

As Ottawa is set to become what is thought to be the first place to require pedestrian warning sounds on electric scooters, Greco said he hopes regulators will solicit input from people who are blind. when the regulations were initially introduced.


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