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Blind Canadians say new rules to put sound on EVs don’t go far enough

Some blind Canadians say Transport Canada’s proposed requirement that electric vehicles (EVs) emit pedestrian warning noise is a good start — but they think the sound should be standardized. 

Unlike the U.S. and Europe, Canada doesn’t currently require electric vehicles and their quieter motors to generate sound when travelling at low speeds.

In April 2021, Transport Canada proposed a requirement that all hybrid and electric cars have sound emitters when travelling at low speeds. This regulation is scheduled to take effect in 2023, but allows manufacturers to pick their own sounds.

While minimum standards would need to be met, “manufacturers would be free to choose what type of sound they apply to their vehicle,” wrote Transport Canada in an emailed statement. 

Vehicles without internal combustion engines make little noise other than the sounds of wind resistance and the rubber tires against the road. On a city street with ambient noise, they can be impossible to audibly detect. 

Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) regulatory affairs manager Lui Greco said blind and partially sighted people depend on the distinct sounds of vehicles to safely navigate. 

With combustion engines “you can hear the car go; whether it’s stopped moving, slowly accelerating,” said Greco.

Without those recognizable cues, he said many blind or partially sighted people will be afraid to go out. The pedestrian warning sounds required for EVs need to be standardized, he said. 

“City streets are busy, noisy, hectic environments … so it’s essential that whatever sound an electric vehicle makes as it’s slowing down or speeding up is identifiable.” 

Greco said these regulations could also benefit cyclists and people who may be distracted while walking.

‘They really can’t hear me’

Many of the EVs currently on Canadian roads do generate some sort of sound at low speeds or when backing up — but many older models don’t have these features.

Mark Cayer said his EV is so silent that it worries him. His 2018 Volkswagen e-Golf doesn’t have any sort of audible pedestrian safety measures, so he started rolling down the windows and turning up the radio to make up for this. 

“For people who are hard of sight, people who are blind and walking … it’s possibly very dangerous to not be able to hear the car at all,” said Cayer, who is a member of the Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa. 

Mark Cayer says that he worries pedestrians won’t hear his electric vehicle because it runs so quietly. (Michelle Allan/CBC)

Cayer said switching to an EV has prompted him to become a more conscientious driver. 

“I’m always watching for pedestrians and watching for people coming up on a bicycle from behind. I’m cognizant of the fact that they really can’t hear me.” 

He said it should be mandatory for EVs to emit some sort of sound at slow speeds to warn pedestrians. 

Mandatory vs. optional warnings

Paul Camire drives for Uber in his 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV. He said his car has a pedestrian sound alert speaker that activates at low speeds. 

“Under 20 kilometres an hour, it sounds like a shushing sound.”

Camire, who spends the majority of his day driving at low speeds while ferrying his passengers around Ottawa, said he turned off the sound because it bothered him. 

He added that a part of the reason he bought an EV was to avoid contributing to “noise pollution.” Consistent, excess noise, such as that caused by gas vehicles, can have negative impacts on people and wildlife over time. 

Camire said he doesn’t agree with the proposed regulations but he would support voluntary alerting features like pedestrian horns, which emit more of a short chirp and are intended to be less startling than traditional horns.

“I really, really like that concept and I wish more cars would have just adopted that instead of the mandatory noisemaker.” 

Greco said safety measures shouldn’t be optional. 

“We had the same discussion when seatbelts became mandatory,” said Greco.

“The lives of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users could be compromised by them simply choosing to turn off their [pedestrian warning] system.” 

As Ottawa is on track to become what is believed to be the first place to require pedestrian warning sounds on e-scooters, Greco said he hopes that regulators seek feedback from people who are blind during the initial introduction of the regulations. 

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