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Hybrid Cars Need To Be Louder, House Rules

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WASHINGTON — Silent hybrid vehicles may soon be a thing of the past.

Auto safety regulators would be required to set minimum sound levels for hybrid and electric vehicles under a bill approved Thursday by the House. Blind pedestrians have pushed for the changes, saying the quiet purr of hybrids can pose risks for them because they use sound cues to travel safely.

Hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight are well-regarded for their high gas mileage, but they are virtually silent when propelled by electric motors at low speeds. With more hybrids and new electric cars coming onto the market, automakers and advocates for the blind have raised concerned about potential safety problems for blind pedestrians.

"The trend toward putting more environmentally friendly, quiet vehicles on the road has unintentionally jeopardized the safety and independence of the blind and other pedestrians," said Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y.

The House passed the bill 379-30. The Senate approved its version, sponsored by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., last week, and the measure now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, said the bill would protect blind pedestrians along with joggers, children and others who need to be alerted to approaching traffic.

Automakers and the National Federation of the Blind support the plan. Car manufacturers have started developing artificial sounds that will be emitted from electric cars and future hybrids.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a research report last year that hybrid vehicles are twice as likely to be involved in pedestrian crashes at low speeds compared with conventional vehicles. The study looked at circumstances in which vehicles were slowing down or stopping, backing up or entering or departing a parking space.

The government has been researching the safety risks that hybrids and electrics can pose for blind pedestrians for vehicles traveling at 20 mph or less. When a car accelerates beyond 20 mph, the friction between the tire and the road's surface makes the vehicle louder.

Nearly 4,100 pedestrians were killed and 59,000 were injured in 2009, according to the most recent data available.

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Online:

National Federation of the Blind: http://www.nfb.org

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.gov/

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