Up to one in three vision-impaired people surveyed have narrowly avoided being injured by electric vehicles, which silently crept up on them, according to submissions to a Government inquiry.
- A survey has found one in three vision-impaired people narrowly avoided injury from quiet electric vehicles
- More than 38,000 Australians are blind or vision-impaired and their main form of commuting is walking
- It’s anticipated 90 per cent of vehicles will be electric by 2050, and there are calls for vehicles to have minimum noise emissions
Vision Australia and Blind Citizens Australia cited findings from a 2018 Monash University survey of the blind and low-vision community in their submissions to a New South Wales Government inquiry into electric buses.
The survey found 35 per cent of respondents reported having experienced either a collision or near-collision with an electric vehicle.
“The introduction of electric or hybrid vehicles has caused significant issues for pedestrians who are blind or vision-impaired because [electric vehicles] are silent,” representatives of Blind Citizens Australia told the inquiry.
“This was identified to be a substantial issue in London, where electric buses will have mandatory installation of a minimum noise emission for electric buses to eradicate the issues for blind or vision-impaired pedestrians.”
Vision Australia said more than 380,000 Australians were blind or had low vision, and that walking was their main means of commuting.
The group’s manager of government relations and advocacy, Chris Edwards, said the risks posed by electric vehicles could not be underestimated.
“Electric vehicles are going to become more prominent on the roads and they don’t make any noise, particularly at low speeds,” Mr Edwards said.
“So when you are in the car park minding your own business these cars can really surprise you and, as someone who is blind, create a significant danger.”
Monash University’s research found that engine noise and the noise tyres made on the road were vital cues and being able to hear the sounds could mean the difference between taking the first step onto the road and crossing safely, or being injured — perhaps killed.
Mr Edwards said the risks were real.
“It’s really important that as we move forward with electric vehicles that are supposed to be about 90 per cent of the fleet by 2050 that we ensure they are safe — certainly for people who are blind or with low vision, but also for the entire community,” he said.
Mr Edwards said acoustic vehicle alert systems should be fitted to electric vehicles to warn people who could be in harm’s way.
“We have been working very closely with Government and alerting them to this issue and we want Australia to be consistent with other countries like the United States and Europe that have mandated these audio vehicle alerting systems to ensure they do make a minimum noise when travelling slowly,” he said.
No warning, no sound
Catherine Mahoney is a tireless community campaigner for people with a disability in Newcastle and the Hunter region.
Born blind, Ms Mahoney said she relied on a range of sounds to help her to get around.
She said the whisper-quiet vehicles approached without warning, posing a real risk.
“I have certainly noticed the diminishing of the sounds, so you don’t have the same warning and it is obviously something you don’t want to get wrong,” Ms Mahoney said.
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“I think we all need all of our senses that we can use when travelling around.
“The other thing that concerns me is not only for people who are blind but there are many people who are hearing-impaired as well.
“There is a group of people in our community who are deaf-blind, so they have limited vision and limited hearing if any at all, and those people would be in particular danger.”
Researchers acknowledge risks
A 2018 New South Wales Parliamentary Research Paper highlighted challenges posed by the whisper-quiet cars.
“Electric vehicles at slower speeds are virtually silent, as they have no internal combustion engine and the only noise emitted from their electric motors is a barely perceptible high-pitched frequency,” researchers found.
“Low levels of noise may ‘pose an additional risk to pedestrian safety’.
“A recent paper identified that electric vehicles are very difficult to detect and respond to as they are unable to rely on their other sensory modalities, such as hearing, to navigate when it is safe to cross roads.
“Similarly, detection concerns have also been raised about cyclists.”
Last year the European Union introduced new laws, requiring electric vehicles to make noise at low speeds.
The European Union requires automakers to fit their electric vehicles with systems that emit warning noises when the car is moving at a slow speed.