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Pump Up The Sound, Regulators Tell Makers Of Electric, Hybrid Cars

One of the benefits for owners of electric and hybrid cars is that they are quiet. While that is attractive for the driver, it poses a danger to pedestrians. But the U.S. government on Monday finalized new rules requiring so-called "quiet cars" to make alert beeps when traveling at low speeds.

The rules apply to hybrid cars and electric cars, trucks, SUVs and buses that weigh less than five tons. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says hybrids and electric vehicles "will be required to make audible noise when traveling in reverse or forward at speeds up to ... about 19 miles per hour."

"We all depend on our senses to alert us to possible danger," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a statement. "With more, quieter hybrid and electrical cars on the road, the ability for all pedestrians to hear as well as see the cars becomes an important factor of reducing the risk of possible crashes and improving safety."

The regulations come as a result of the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act signed in 2011. The new feature will cost car companies $39 million annually because compliance requires an external waterproof speaker, according to Reuters, but the benefits of reduced injuries are estimated at $250 million to $320 million annually.

NHTSA projects 2,400 fewer pedestrian injuries once the rules are implemented. The agency says an electric or hybrid vehicle is 1.18 times more likely to be involved in a collision with a pedestrian, and 1.51 times more likely to be involved in a collision with a person on a bike, than is a regular gas-powered vehicle.

This regulation will ensure that blind Americans can continue to travel safely

The Auto Alliance, an auto industry group, says its members (which include the major car companies) support the safety goal of the law.

"We're still reviewing this final rule, however we already know that it's important that automakers have the flexibility to equip vehicles with sounds that are sufficiently detectable yet pleasant to hear; consumer acceptance is critical and that hinges on sounds not annoying people inside the auto. Additionally, just as current conventionally-powered vehicles sound differently than one another, it's critical that the noise requirements for their electrically powered counterparts are not so rigid they require a single sound signature."

In a statement, the president of the National Federation for the Blind, Mark Riccobono, said, "This regulation will ensure that blind Americans can continue to travel safely and independently as we work, learn, shop, and engage in all facets of community life."

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Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.
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