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Car trade organizations and advocacy groups for the vision-impaired have joined forces to set noise standards for electric and hybrid cars.

Their goal is simple: keep blind folks from being run over by cars they can't hear coming.

The groups involved - the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, National Federation of the Blind, Association of International Automobile Manufacturers and American Council of the Blind - have signed a joint letter which they presented to legislators working on US Senate bill S. 3302, the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010. The language in the letter is expected to be added as an amendment to that broader bill.

The letter proposes that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) begin within 18 months to create alert-sound standards that would allow a blind person - or, for that matter, anyone - to "reasonably detect" the approach of an otherwise-silent electric or hybrid car. Those standards would then be made law within three years.

The alert sound would, according to the letter, take into account "the overall community noise impact," meaning that you need not fear siren, whistles, or highly amplified voices shouting "Look out!" Also, the alert sound or sound sets would be standardized — you won't, as one reporter noted, be able to customize your own car's sounds in the same way that you "can download ringtones for cell phones".

The sounds will be required to present not only location information to those who hear them, but also provide feedback on the vehicle's speed and rate of acceleration - and, no, the Doppler effect wouldn't work until it was too late, the car had just run you down, and was zipping away.

Work on an agreement concerning the alert system was energized last year when substantially similar bills were introduced in the the Senate (S. 841) and the House (H.R. 734), both entitled the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, and both more narrowly focused on alerting the blind to silent-running electric vehicles than the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010, which the new joint letter addresses.

In a statement representative of the comity being displayed by the carmakers and activists for the blind, National Federation of the Blind president Marc Maurer said that his group "commends the automobile industry for its leadership on this issue and for its genuine concern for the safety of blind Americans, cyclists, runners, small children, and other pedestrians". ®

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