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NHTSA to ask automakers to crank up the volume on hybrids

Whether it is because of the rising cost of gas or the desire to leave a smaller carbon footprint, hybrid vehicles have exploded in popularity in recent years. Although the vehicles deliver on their promise to be "greener" than gas or diesel engines, they come with a dark side: they operate at such a low volume at slow speeds that bicyclists and pedestrians cannot hear them, putting them at a greater risk of being involved in a car accident.

Hybrids are much harder to hear at low speeds because their engines operate differently than ones powered by gas or diesel. At low speeds, hybrids draw power from their internal batteries, making them much harder to hear. At low speeds, hybrids emit about as much sound as an electric golf cart. This allows hybrids to "sneak" up on a pedestrian and bicyclist before they have time to react.

As a result, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has stepped in to attempt to reduce the risk of pedestrian and bicycle accidents caused by the almost silent vehicles. Pursuant to the powers given to it by Congress under the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, the agency recently proposed requiring minimum sound standards for hybrids and electric vehicles.

The proposed NHTSA regulations, called Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 151, would give automakers broad authority in choosing how to make their hybrid vehicles easier to hear. However, the NHTSA regulations would require each make and model of vehicle to emit the same sounds. Additionally, the sounds emitted by each hybrid must meet minimum standards, such as being loud enough to be heard over other vehicles and street noise when traveling below 18 miles-per-hour.

If the new regulations are implemented, the NHTSA is optimistic that they can make a difference in pedestrian and bicyclist safety. The agency estimates that the proposed regulations could reduce the number of pedestrian and bicycle accidents nationwide by 2,800 over the life of each vehicle model.

Consult an attorney

Although pedestrian and bicycle accidents are a significant problem throughout the nation, silent hybrids comprise only a fraction of bicycle and pedestrian accidents, likely because they make up only about three percent of all vehicles. Many more of such accidents are caused by driver inattention and negligence, such as engaging in distracted driving (e.g. texting or using a cellphone while driving).

In Massachusetts, if you are the victim of a bicycle or pedestrian accident that was caused by an inattentive driver, you have the right to file a lawsuit seeking damages from the driver. Under Massachusetts law, you may be entitled to recover damages such as medical bills, lost wages and future medical expenses. If you find yourself in this situation, contact an experienced personal injury attorney to ensure that your right to compensation is protected.

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