Quieter Electric Vehicles: Great for the Environment but a Pedestrian Safety Concern 

By Bernadette Ackerman

Many transit agencies are well underway with their plans to inject Electric Vehicles (EVs) into their fleets. Doing so offers a wide variety of benefits for both the agency and the environment. From reduced maintenance and fuel costs to lower greenhouse emissions, there is absolutely no doubt that moving from a diesel fleet to an electric one is the smart, eco-friendly option. However, it’s possible that this move could bring about other problems that agencies aren’t thinking ab1out such as an uptick in pedestrian accidents. 

Taking Pedestrian Safety Seriously

In 2017, the NYC Department of Health published a report on pedestrian fatalities in New York City between 2012 and 2014 as part of its Vision Zero Initiative to prevent traffic-related injuries and deaths. The report showed that during those two years, there were 497 pedestrian fatalities. Forty four of those deaths were accidents involving pedestrians and one of the city’s buses. In its most recent report from 2019, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported 51 fatalities and hundreds of injuries involving pedestrians and public buses. Of course, New York City isn’t alone. Many cities are struggling with this issue. 

But what about electric vehicles has the potential to exacerbate the pedestrian fatalities problem? It’s quite simple – the significantly reduced or even absent lack of engine noise in the electric vehicle has the potential to increase pedestrian accidents. Even with the volume of diesel vehicles, pedestrians often don’t hear buses. What will happen when super quiet electric vehicles begin hitting the streets en masse? 

Is Reduced Engine Noise a Pedestrian Risk Factor?

The primary producer of noise – the engine – is vastly different in EVs than in a traditional diesel engine. Combustible engines powered by fossil fuels are noisy. Some estimates put the decibel level of a diesel bus at 80-85 decibels. That’s equivalent to a gas-powered lawnmower or an exceptionally raucous restaurant.

Contrast that with the decibel levels typically found on an EV. An electric bus engine typically has a decibel level just below 60 DBS, which is about equal to the levels found in everyday conversation. As a result, it should cause concern for transit agencies and cities with high pedestrian traffic, especially those that are already trying to figure out how to keep distracted pedestrians from getting hit by moving vehicles in crosswalks. These noiseless engines also pose a considerable problem for pedestrians with hearing or visual disabilities as well.

This issue isn’t isolated to electric buses either; all electric vehicles present a problem for pedestrians due to their quiet engines. In some places, manufacturers are adding fake noise to their cars when traveling at slow speeds to alert pedestrians of their presence. In fact, by July 2021, all new electric car models sold in the European Union must now make artificial noise when traveling below 12 mph or reversing to alert pedestrians of their presence. As of 2020, all of London’s electric buses are required to play artificial noise when traveling at low speeds. The United States isn’t far behind.