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Friday, February 15, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Silent running: Hybrids sneaking up on pedestrians

The Oregonian

Hybrid cars are great. They get great mileage, they help the environment, their owners love them.

And they're quiet. Which at first seems great.

But one day my husband and I went to test-drive a hybrid. As we turned to leave the showroom, our salesman anxiously said, "Be sure you look left and right when you walk outside."

Why? "Because the hybrids are silent. You can't hear them coming."

We were startled. Had people actually been hit by cars in the parking lot? "No," he said. "But there've been close calls."

Wow. A car so silent you can't hear it coming.

In the months since, I've talked to friends who own hybrids. They all have stories.

"Pedestrians walking away from you in a parking lot have no idea you're there," says my friend Corey, who owns a Toyota Prius. "And frequently bicycles in traffic have no idea you're there. It requires a real vigilance on your part. And you have to learn how to honk very politely, like, 'toot, toot.' "

When my friend Dory, who also owns a Prius, wants people to know she's behind them, "I open the window and turn on the radio."

And an Edmunds.com editor's account of test-driving the all-electric Tesla roadster includes an anecdote about startling a bicyclist.

Dealers emphasize what a great product the hybrid is. But they also acknowledge that sometimes silence is not golden.

"It's kind of unnerving because you can't hear the thing run," says Gary Swanson, a Toyota dealer. When customers test-drive hybrids, "you advise people that [pedestrians] won't hear them coming. They have to give a warning they're coming through. It's not like you can rev your engine."

Joanne Ritter is spokeswoman for Guide Dogs for the Blind (www.guidedogs.com). She says hybrids are dangerous for blind people, especially those who use canes.

"They will feel with the cane and realize there's a curb. They'll stop and listen for traffic, and when they think the traffic has stopped in front of them ... they'll venture into the street." But they can't hear hybrids coming.

A few things have changed at Guide Dogs for the Blind since hybrids started selling well.

First, "We are training the dogs to be aware of silent cars," Ritter says. Second, they're teaching the owners of the guide dogs to trust the dogs and stop, even if the blind person can't hear an engine.

The danger to blind people is so great, some organizations have suggested hybrids be built with sound effects: clicks, beeps, bells, whistles, fans.

If carmakers added sound effects, it could help more than the blind. After all, with cellphones, Bluetooth technology and iPods, more pedestrians are walking around distracted and less able to hear approaching vehicles. Though frankly, a pedestrian listening at high volume probably wouldn't hear a Mack truck coming.

But hybrids running on electric motors at low speeds are in exactly the kinds of places pedestrians can be found: in parking garages or lots, exiting driveways, stopped before turns at intersections.

There are no statistics, yet, that indicate hybrid cars have caused more injuries or deaths to pedestrians or cyclists than vehicles with standard engines. But then, as a police officer told me this week, there's no box to check on an accident report to indicate the vehicle was a hybrid.

Until a fix is found, if one ever is, the obvious solution is vigilance. Hybrid owners will have to drive more carefully. Pedestrians will have to be alert. When you're on a walk, enjoy the silence. But look both ways before you cross.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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