Electric vehicles: A silent danger for employers?

The debate over global warming and pressure to tackle climate change is intensifying.

Electric vehicles (EVs) allow a move away from fossil fuels and offer an ecological solution to the problem of traffic pollution. Chancellor Phillip Hammond’s green planning includes a budget pledge to spend £400m on charging points for EVs.

Have you considered, though, what traffic might sound like in the not-too-distant future when EVs abound in large numbers? While roads may be much quieter, there are concerns EVs present increased danger to pedestrians because of their silent engines.

Silent and deadly?

Sound helps people be aware of oncoming vehicles. Electric cars and hybrids running under electric power move silently and are likely to surprise people on foot who expect to hear vehicles approach.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents say: “the greatest risks associated with EVs are when they are travelling at low speeds such as in urban areas with lower limits, as the noise from tyres, the road surface and aerodynamic noise are minimal at those speeds”.

University of California experiments concluded EVs hold higher percentage rates for running into pedestrians than petrol-powered models. Subjects wearing blindfolds could hear a petrol driven Honda Accord approaching from as far away as thirty six feet but could only identify a Toyota Prius advancing when it reached eleven feet – one second before collision!

Increased risk for the partially-sighted

Those with limited sight will particularly be at risk since they depend heavily on surrounding sound to manoeuvre. Indeed, a report from the Guide Dogs Association found:

  • Pedestrians with sight loss are 40% more likely to be hit by a quiet hybrid or electric car than one with a petrol or diesel engine.
  • There was a 54% increase in pedestrian injuries in accidents involving quiet cars between 2012 and 2013.
"While we support the development of environmentally-friendly vehicles, more needs to be done to protect pedestrian safety"
Guide Dogs Association

The charity says: “Quiet vehicles put pedestrians at risk outside schools, in residential areas and in our towns and cities. The government is spending hundreds of millions of pounds to increase the numbers of quiet cars on the roads, and while we support the development of environmentally-friendly vehicles, more needs to be done to protect pedestrian safety”.

In this regard, there is an onus on employers to ensure that their use of EVs has been risk assessed and that the risk of injury to workers and members of the public has been reduced to a minimum.

Free Download: Definitive Guide to General Risk Assessments

Identify risks and keep your business compliant with this free guide

Sound generators  

Car builders and independent companies have been working on a range of artificial sound generators that will reduce the risk of accidents. Most systems involve fixing speakers to a vehicle that work in the direction it is moving. Sounds produced vary from computerised squawks to a revving rumble like that of a petrol or diesel combustion engine.

A vehicle safety firm has installed quiet vehicle sounders in construction firm, FM Conway’s, electric vans so that site workers may hear them approach. When driven, the vehicles make a distinctive sound that can clearly be heard in danger zones.

One FM Conway driver commented: “before retrofitting the quiet vehicle sounder, it was stressful driving onto site not knowing if people would hear you”. FM Conway recently invested £7million in EVs and many more companies are expected to follow suit.

Vehicle sounders could potentially be the answer in alerting people when in close proximity to EVs. As the noise given off is highly directional, it allows even pedestrians with limited sight to tell where the vehicle is. Pitch and tone can also be varied as vehicles speed up or slow down.

To be quiet or not to be quiet?

That is the question posed by René Weinandy, head of Noise Abatement in Transport for the German Environment Agency. Weinandy contrarily believes vehicle sounders may do more harm than good. He argues there is too much focus on the danger of pedestrian injury and not enough on the more insidious threat of noise pollution.

Weinandy says: “In Germany alone, an estimated 4,000 people die every year from noise-triggered heart attacks – more than are killed in traffic accidents. So is it really a wise decision to increase the noticeability of EVs in traffic by making them spew noise pollution?”

Weinandy contends there is no scientific proof that acoustic alert systems actually succeed in reducing the danger to pedestrians. Many studies do demonstrate the health risks of urban noise pollution, linked not just to hearing loss but also to even more serious conditions like cancer and dementia.

Weinandy does not deny the danger quiet vehicles pose to pedestrians – just questions whether acoustic alerts will undo much of the benefits EVs otherwise offer. His proposal is not to callously accept traffic injuries as a necessary trade-off to keep noise levels at a sufficiently healthy low, but rather to see whether there could be alternatives to noise alert systems to keep people safe.

Current law

EU rules state noise generators must be fitted to quiet cars by 2021, but the Guide Dogs Association say that before then there will be thousands more potentially dangerous green cars on the road. The charity believes car makers should “do the right thing and fit sound-generating systems to quiet vehicles before it becomes compulsory”.

Calls for legislation have been backed by a YouGov survey in which more than three quarters of those asked said that quieter vehicles will make roads less safe for blind or partially-sighted pedestrians. Similar numbers think quiet green cars are a threat to older people and children.

Campaigners say UK legislation should require that noise-making equipment is not only fitted to quiet vehicles but always switched on.

It pays to take advice

Given the dangers highlighted, if you use EVs in your fleet, support from Ellis Whittam’s network of Health & Safety Consultants will help ensure that you are taking all necessary steps to minimise risk. For advice, call 0345 226 8393.