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A Silent Killer? Do Electric Cars Pose a Risk to Other Road Users?

Electric cars run almost silently and there have been concerns raised about this causing an issue for other road users. However, is this a real concern or is something not working making noise about it?

There have been concerned murmurings on the busy streets of London, with reports of UFOs at ground level. Now this is not an attempt at an early April Fool’s prank, but instead the new sound of the buses on the 100 route between St Pauls and Shadwell

This is a trial which is a response to the fact that EU legislation which requires all vehicles must be louder than 56 decibels when they are moving slower than 20 km/h, about 12 miles per hour.

Transport for London has been working with BAFTA-nominated film and television music composers Zelig Sound to create a suitable ambient sound that Londoners will fill appealing. The end result is an electronic beat when the vehicle is idling (F Major 7 for the music purists) which changes to a different sound as the vehicle starts to move (a C sharp played every three beats). This has been the result of over a year of research and testing.

Even though we are set to leave the EU, it is expected that all new electric and hybrid vehicles will soon be shipped with a low-speed noise generator. In Europe there is a requirement for all older vehicles to have this retrofitted from 2021, however, it is not clear what will be law in the UK.

There are those who question the reasoning for this addition, however, there is a need. Research by the U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway

Traffic Safety Administration has shown that pedestrians and cyclists are up to 40% more likely to be hit by an electric vehicle. Most of these are on open, straight roads where the car is travelling and the pedestrian or cyclist is struck. The numbers jump for visually impaired road users where studies have shown 93% have had issues with electric vehicles.

Electric Cars – The Issues For Road Users

Near silent driving is one of the major benefits of electric vehicles, and low-speed manoeuvring is quiet as the sound of tyres and wind noise will not play a part. Part of the solution will be to provide some form of warning, however, I live in fear of a busy street where a traffic jam becomes a cacophony of different electronic noises.

With the exception of visually impaired pedestrians, there is a lack of awareness. Personally, I have particularly found cyclists are not generally aware of the potential of electric vehicles approaching them, not least as there are not as many on the roads. However, some seem not to be aware of any vehicle.

As an electric car driver, I am still in a minority, it is one which is decreasing as I regularly see more electric vehicles on the streets, however, there is still a need for education for road users to be aware of quieter vehicles and not least at low speeds.

I have witnessed some near misses above 12 mph where an annunciator will be operating, where cyclists have not taken a second to check their surroundings and pedal straight into the path of an EV.

Do Electric Cars Pose a Risk to Other Road Users

Technology will also help, the various new driver support technologies can react faster than a human when something enters the path of a vehicle, bringing the car to a halt.

I can imagine the same issues that occurred when motor cars were first introduced and I suppose we should be pleased we are not required to have someone walking in front of us waving a red flag.

The introduction of any new technology will introduce new and potentially unexpected risks which need to be overcome and not just by vehicle owners and drivers but also by other road users.

We, as electric vehicle drivers need to be aware of the potential risks to other road users and, as an industry, we need to ensure that there is some form of standardisation for the sounds our vehicles will be required to make, you can imagine the confusion when there are a number of noises moving in different directions.

The bottom line is that all vehicles pose a risk, to put this into perspective, in an average year in the US there are approximately 37,461 people killed in 34,436 motor vehicle crashes for an average of 102 deaths per day on the roads of America. During the same period, there was only one death which was attributed to an electric vehicle.

Of course, as the number of electric vehicles on the road increase there will be accidents and incidents, however, the likelihood is that it will be no worse than traditional vehicles and in fact, due to improved crumple zones and safety features in electric vehicles the number of fatal accidents will always be lesser, however, only time will tell.

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