Quiet e-cars hit pedestrians, but big vehicles kill them

Q: Do electric cars have a sound added to them? I heard one drive past me the other day and it sounded like something from Star Wars.

A: In 1886 the Benz Patent Motor Car made its debut as the first car powered by an internal combustion engine. Ever since then, nearly every car you’ve encountered has had a similar inherent safety feature: They’re noisy. Particularly for pedestrians, the engine noise from a car is an effective warning. Before you even see a vehicle, you can make a decent guess about how close it is, how fast it’s going, whether it’s approaching or moving away from you, and even how big it is.

If you were to stand by a road as a new electric car approached, you’d still hear it coming, but that’s because they’re required to make artificial sounds. However, there was a gap (of nearly 20 years) between the widespread availability of hybrid and e-vehicles and the requirement for them to be louder than they naturally are.

In 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a study showing that hybrid e-vehicles were involved in 66% more low-speed maneuver crashes with pedestrians than vehicles powered by internal combustion. As vehicle speeds increase, pedestrian crash rates become similar between hybrid and conventional vehicles. It’s easy to see why; at slow speeds, electric cars are nearly silent. At higher speeds, wheels and wind contribute to vehicle noise, offsetting the quiet e-motor.

By 2019, NHTSA required car manufacturers to add sounds to their electric and hybrid vehicles (at speeds below 19 mph) so that pedestrians could hear them. Manufacturers couldn’t just pick any noise; it had to be a sound that met the requirements of the rule. It turns out that making your car sound like a pod racer from Star Wars meets the requirement.

For anyone driving a hybrid or e-car built prior to 2019, be aware that with all the competing sounds of gas-powered vehicles you might be audibly invisible at slow speeds. Pedestrians, especially the visually impaired, may not know you’re coming, so it’s extra important to pay attention to those traveling on foot.

I’m in favor of making vehicles safer for pedestrians, but this rule won’t change the trajectory of increasing pedestrian deaths. Yes, e-cars crash with pedestrians more than gas-powered cars, but those additional crashes result in few fatalities because they’re at low speeds.

Pedestrian traffic fatalities involve many factors, but the big contributors are full-size SUVs and pickups. Drivers of those vehicles are up to three times more likely to kill the pedestrian compared to cars. Both poor visibility and vehicle design are bad for pedestrians. The hood height of a new Ford F-150 is about 55 inches. That’s about as tall as the total height of a Toyota Camry. It’s also several inches taller than the average fourth-grader. I point that out because kids are disproportionately the victims of front-blind-zone crashes. Those tall hoods cause more problems upon impact too: They strike a pedestrian’s torso rather than legs, and they’re more likely to push a pedestrian forward and run them over.

In 2021 SUV and truck sales hit a new mark: 80% of new vehicle sales. As demand for bigger vehicles grows, so do pedestrian fatalities (up 77% since 2010). Cars that sound like spaceships will protect a few pedestrians, but to really make an impact, America must overcome its obsession with huge vehicles.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.