Crank of the Week - August 18, 2008 - Alan Lowenthal

California has a well deserved reputation as a place where people are very concerned about the environment and are willing to act on their beliefs. Not surprisingly, California has the largest population of electric and hybrid electric vehicles in the US. Stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Ed Beggly Jr. have been spotted proudly driving their Priuses, along with thousands of other eco-conscious residents of the Golden State. Electric and hybrid vehicles may be good for the environment, but the people driving electric cars were not told that they are so quiet that they pose a danger to blind people—supposedly the blind can't hear the vehicles coming.

Naturally this situation is totally unacceptable to Californians, who are even more politically correct than they are eco-friendly. In response to this threat of silent green vehicular carnage, the Californian legislature has risen to the challenge of making the streets both green and safe for the visually impaired.

State Senator Alan Lowenthal, a Long Beach Democrat, is pushing a bill aimed at ensuring that all vehicles make enough noise to be heard by the blind and visually impaired when they're about to cross a street. Proving that where there is one crank there are probably more, the State Senate passed the bill 23-12. As passed, the bill would establish a committee to study the issue and recommend ways the vehicles could make more noise. If signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger the recommendations would be due by 2010. Schwarzenegger has not yet taken a public position on the matter.

Is this for real? Well yes—full hybrid cars, like the Prius, can run solely on their electric motors at low speeds, making them much harder to hear by pedestrians. According to The Associated Press, early results from a continuing study at the University of California, Riverside found that “hybrids operating at slow speeds must be 40 percent closer to pedestrians than combustion-engine vehicles before they make enough noise for their location to be detected.”

Reporting in the New York Times, Richard Chang said: “It happened again last Friday. I was walking with two friends to our car in a parking garage when I got a strange feeling that we were being followed. When I turned my head, I saw the front slope of a Toyota Prius, which was rolling quietly a few feet behind us.” My goodness, what a harrowing experience! Chang summed up the encounter saying, “it only freaked me out a little before I stepped aside.”

The California Department of Motor Vehicles reports there are 248,000 gas-electric hybrid vehicles and 89,000 all-electric vehicles on the road in California. State traffic safety officials say they don't track statistics on pedestrian accidents involving hybrid or electric vehicles separately from other accidents, so no one really knows if the threat of silent death at the hands of such vehicles is real. This has not stilled the hand of the intrepid Senator Lowenthal or his stalwart companions in the California State Senate. Rest assured that the electric car threat to the visually impaired will be overcome.