Silent But Deadly: Quiet Cars Kill

The engines installed on hybrid and electric vehicles make them silent and potentially deadly threats to pedestrians. Unlike traditional combustion engines, hybrid and electric engines do not generate significant noise that can alert pedestrians to the presence of an approaching vehicle. While companies including Toyota, Nissan, and others have tested sound generating systems for their hybrid and electric vehicles in the past, it is only within the past year that the government has initiated formal rules that require them to develop and install these systems on their vehicles.

Hybrids and Electrics Compared with Traditional Combustion Engines

The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) has analyzed the risks posed by electric and hybrid vehicles and determined that the vehicles may be 20% more likely to be involved in a pedestrian accident than a vehicle that has a conventional combustion engine. HLDI reviewed the frequency of accidents involving 17 hybrid vehicles and their comparative non-hybrid counterparts. The data showed that motorists driving hybrid or electric vehicles had a statistically greater risk of causing a pedestrian accident than the non-hybrid counterpart.

Similar studies from England have generated even more dire warnings. Studies conducted by the non-profit “Guide Dogs” indicated a 54% increase from 2012 to 2013 in pedestrian accidents involving hybrid vehicles. The research also showed that pedestrians were 40% more likely to be involved in an accident with a hybrid or purely electric vehicle than in an accident with a vehicle powered by a traditional combustion engine.

Potential Problems for the Future

The proliferation of hybrid and electric vehicles means that there is an ever-increasing risk to pedestrians and other motorists. Of the more than 11 million hybrid vehicles sold in 2016, 36% were sold in the United States. Toyota reported an increase in sales of Prius’s and Rav 4’s that was 16% higher than in 2015. As of May 2016, there were 4.058 million hybrid vehicles registered in the United States. Higher fuel prices increased awareness regarding the environment, and lower prices for hybrid and electric vehicles are factors that will create greater demand for more of these silent, eco-friendly vehicles in the future. From 1999 through 2014, the number of hybrid electric vehicles sold each year has risen significantly with each passing year. It’s a trend that is expected to increase exponentially as more manufacturers begin producing hybrid and pure electric vehicles. To date, there are more hybrid and pure electric vehicles cruising down American roads than in any other country except Japan.

Raising Noise with New Rules

New rules set by the federal government in November 2016 require vehicle manufacturers to either naturally or artificially “raise the noise” their engines make at speeds less than 20 MPH. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, these new rules could prevent approximately 2,400 pedestrian injuries per year once all hybrid or pure electric vehicles are equipped to these standards. As of now, vehicle manufacturers have until September 1, 2019, to comply with the rules and equip their vehicles to meet these new safety standards.

The rules do not require the vehicles to provide a sound warning at higher speeds as it is assumed that factors including tire motion and wind generated by the vehicle will provide sufficient warning to pedestrians that a moving vehicle is in their vicinity. However, there will still be a considerable risk for pedestrians traveling on bike lanes and sidewalks that are positioned beside roads where posted speeds exceed 20 mph. This includes most city streets and residential neighborhoods where speed limits are often in excess of 25 or 30 MPH.

Factors that Increase Risk

There are many factors that can increase the risk of becoming involved in an accident with a silent hybrid or electric vehicle. Pedestrians who are visually impaired and those with impaired hearing are at particular risk as they rely heavily on loud sounds to keep them out of the path of moving vehicles. Moreover, common distractions including cell phones, personal music players, tablets, etc. that distract hearing and visual senses can also increase the risk posed to pedestrians.

Liability for Accidents

Vehicle manufacturers can be potentially liable for engines that fail to provide an audible warning to pedestrians and other motorists. Similarly, motorists can be held liable if they drive the vehicle in a dangerous and reckless manner that intentionally places pedestrians at risk.

For instance, failing to obey posted signs or speeding through parking lots or through residential neighborhoods is considered negligent behavior under Illinois law. Individuals who are injured or survivors of those who are killed and their car accident lawyer can pursue compensation for personal injuries, wrongful deaths, and property damage that result from such negligent driving behaviors of motorists operating hybrid or pure electric vehicles.