The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2010: Making Near-Silent Electric Cars Safer for Passing Pedestrians

What began as Senate bill 841 in 2009 is now officially in law as the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act (PESA) of 2010 after being passed by both houses of Congress in December of 2010 and signed by President Barack Obama on January 4, 2011. The new law sets the stage for all electric or electric/gas hybrid vehicles to come equipped with some manner of noise-generating device that alerts pedestrians to their otherwise silent operation.

Why Was This Law Introduced?

As electric and electric/gas hybrid cars, trucks and SUVs became more prevalent, the vast differences between them and traditional internal combustion engine vehicles were finally revealed to the world. The vehicle types are not only different in the way in which they are powered or the amount of emissions produced. One of the key traits that set electric vehicles apart from gas-powered vehicles is the level of noise that each emits. The motors in electrics are virtually silent; the only noise produced by the vehicle is the result of the tires hitting the asphalt or the shocks engaging/bouncing to produce some squeaking or rattling noises.

While idling at a traffic control signal or just upon start-up, an electric vehicle would be basically invisible to a sight-impaired pedestrian. The danger inherent with any intersection of sightless pedestrians and silent vehicles led some safety advocacy groups and lawmakers to propose the idea of the PESA. The idea is that electric vehicles need some way to announce their presence to blind people in the vicinity since traditional noises like the revving or humming of an engine are not present in the admittedly more eco-friendly battery-operated and hybrid cars of today.

What Will the Law Do?

At the moment, the law doesn't really have the "teeth" necessary to result in a huge change for car makers, drivers or pedestrians. The purpose of the law now is to effectively research and determine what types, sounds, decibel levels and tones would be sufficient to adequately warn pedestrians, bicyclists and passersby that an electric vehicle is in their vicinity.

Section Three of the new law directs that the Secretary of Transportation and those in his employ (the United States Department of Transportation, a/k/a the USDOT) have 18 months from the date of enactment (effective the day the President signed the bill into law - January 4, 2011) to begin the process of making a formal rule standardizing:

  • Performance requirements for whatever type of alert noise would be necessary to make an idling or slow-moving electric or hybrid vehicle's presence known to nearby blind and sighted pedestrians alike
  • Ensuring that new electric, hybrid and alternatively powered vehicles are equipped with an alert sound that conforms to whatever standards the USDOT deems necessary to meet the standards established during the 18-month research period

Lawmakers hope the law will make the roadways safer for all people - those in cars and pedestrians alike. As the numbers of electric and hybrid vehicles increase, highway noise as a whole will decrease, so PSEA aims to ensure that the newly quieted roads are as safe as possible.

While it has been signed into law now, there aren't yet standards established to ensure that near-silent electric vehicles can be heard by all. Until such a time as those standards are in place, if you or a loved one has been struck by an electric or hybrid vehicle and injured, contact an experienced motor vehicle injury attorney in your area to learn more about your legal rights and options.