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Do electric engines increase the risk of pedestrian accidents?

Although all-electric cars seem like a thing of the very distant future, that is not the case. Following the popularity of the Toyota Prius and other hybrid vehicles in California and across the U.S., automakers scrambled to develop vehicles run solely off electricity. So far, over 4,000 Nissan Leaf models and almost 3,000 Chevy Volt models have been sold in the U.S., with Ford, Toyota, and Honda planning to introduce electric vehicles in the coming months.

While there are significant environmental and financial benefits to hybrid and electric cars, recent traffic safety research indicates that there may be a downside. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), hybrid and electric vehicles were twice as likely to be involved in an auto accident involving a pedestrian as conventional cars in 2009. Officials believe that the high fatality rate is a result of the lack of traditional engine noise in hybrid and electric cars.

Following the publication of that data, the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act was passed. Under the act, NHTSA will develop and implement federal standards for a pedestrian safety sound system in electric engines. Work on the regulations began this summer, with a final rule expected in 2014.

The pedestrian safety act sets a minimum volume for added sounds and requires that drivers not be able to deactivate the sounds. However, it does not specify the sounds that automakers must add to their vehicles' engines. So far, Nissan and Chevrolet have added chirping sounds to their electric cars. It remains to be seen what other automakers will decide to do, and whether the sounds will be effective at protecting pedestrians from injury and death.

Source: MSN Money, "Hybrids: Quiet threat to pedestrians," Mark Vallet, Oct. 11, 2011

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