With the emergence of hybrid and electric vehicles, an old debate has been brought to the forefront again: vehicle noise. This is because new hybrid and electric vehicles have become notorious for operating at extremely low decibels. In fact, when these vehicles are traveling under twenty miles per hour, they are near impossible to hear.
Studies performed by psychologist Laura Rosenblum of the University of California back this up, as well. According to Scientific American magazine, “Blindfolded subjects who listened to recordings of cars approaching at five miles per hour could locate the familiar hum of a Honda Accord’s internal-combustion engine 36 feet away. But they failed to identify a Prius, running in electric mode, until it came within 11 feet- affording them less than two seconds to react before the vehicle reached their position.”
Even though there was no concrete evidence linking electric and hybrid cars to pedestrian accidents, studies like the one above had a lot of people worried. Many believed that pedestrians were at greater risk for danger and injury. Advocates for the National Federation of the Blind and representatives from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spent a great deal of energy to push for increased noise in these vehicles. Their efforts were rewarded when legislation and rules were passed requiring manufacturers to include artificial sounds to electric vehicles when they are traveling less than 18.6 miles per hour. However, this wasn’t a movement without opposition.
The debate over vehicle sound is not a new one. It’s actually been around for years, for as long as vehicles have ripped through cities and towns across the country. And usually, it isn’t about including MORE sound. Back in 1978, U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. William H. Stewart, said, “Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience. Noise must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere.”
Despite this proclamation from America’s leader in public health issues, vehicle noise actually increased over the next 35 years. Some of this had to do with the emergence of aftermarket exhaust systems, more ferocious engines, larger-wider tires, and thumping stereo systems. Today, purists are fighting the movement to create sound in electric and hybrid cars. They want a return to the days when the quiet countryside ruled. Some opponents of vehicle noise are fanatical in their stance; Dr. Marek Roland-Mieszkowski says, “Noise pollution caused by modified vehicles is a very fast growing problem. They are the weapons of intimidation and acoustical terrorism in the hands of disrespectful and ignorant people.”
But, is this noise really that big of a problem? Or are the complaints coming from curmudgeons that too closely resemble old, bun-haired librarians?
Are quiet cars really a danger to people? Or do we just like to hear the purrs and roars of our engine?
There are a lot of questions with only one real answer: roaring engines will continue to live on.