The pedestrian safety dilemma of electric and hybrid cars

Despite the ecological benefits, electric cars could pose a greater risk to pedestrians, especially in cities: how to address this challenge with practical and innovative measures

Electric and hybrid cars offer numerous advantages over their gasoline counterparts. However, in one aspect, they might fall short: pedestrian safety. A new analysis shows that electric cars may be more prone to hitting pedestrians. The good news is that this issue might be easy to fix.

An analysis of pedestrian accident rates from 2013 to 2017, using data from the UK, revealed a significant difference between electric vehicles (EVs) and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Researchers calculated the accident rates per 100 million miles (160.934 million kilometers) traveled by both types of vehicles. The result is concerning: 5.16 pedestrian accidents per 100 million miles for electric and hybrid vehicles, compared to 2.40 for internal combustion vehicles.

The risk is significantly higher in urban areas. Electric cars are three times more likely to be involved in pedestrian collisions in cities compared to rural areas. This disparity is attributed to the lower ambient noise levels in rural areas, which make electric vehicles more audible compared to noise-saturated urban environments, where their silent operation makes them nearly invisible.

Causes of the problem

The study did not directly analyze the causes of this discrepancy, but researchers suspect several factors. The first is not directly related to the cars themselves: drivers of electric cars tend to be younger and less experienced, which could lead to more accidents. Another explanation could be that electric vehicles are much quieter than combustion engines.

Internal combustion engines produce about 70 decibels of noise, equivalent to a washing machine or vacuum cleaner. Meanwhile, electric motors are almost silent. Since 2021, electric vehicles are required to have a sound generator, but the minimum requirement is 56 decibels, equivalent to the noise of a refrigerator or a loud computer, far from the level of a combustion engine. Researchers emphasize the need to mitigate this risk as the adoption of electric and hybrid vehicles increases. Various strategies could be employed to improve pedestrian safety.

An immediate solution is the mandatory implementation of sound warning systems for electric vehicles, especially at low speeds. These systems could emit sounds to alert pedestrians to the approaching vehicle, mimicking the noise produced by traditional engines. This could be the optimal solution as it has already been implemented, but the volume of the sounds needs to be increased. However, retrofitting existing cars would be a challenge.

Urban planners can play a crucial role by redesigning urban landscapes to prioritize pedestrian safety. This includes better crosswalks, more pedestrian zones, and traffic control measures that reduce vehicle speeds in areas with high pedestrian traffic.

Educating both drivers and pedestrians about the specific risks associated with electric and hybrid vehicles can foster a culture of vigilance and safety. Pedestrians need to be aware of the quieter nature of these vehicles, while drivers should be encouraged to drive cautiously, especially in densely populated pedestrian areas.

Do electric cars save lives?

Despite the higher risk to pedestrians, overall, electric cars continue to save lives, albeit indirectly. Because they emit no pollutants, they reduce urban pollution, decreasing respiratory problems like asthma that cost many lives and resources. A recent report by the American Lung Association calculated the impact of replacing gasoline cars with zero-emission vehicles by 2035. This change could prevent 89,300 premature deaths by 2050, demonstrating the life-saving potential of electric cars— and this is just in the United States.

The benefits don’t stop there. The report anticipates 2.2 million fewer asthma attacks and 10.7 million fewer lost workdays, translating to nearly $978 billion in public health benefits. However, achieving these gains requires more than just replacing engines. A broader transition to clean energy sources like wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and nuclear is necessary.

The shift to electric and hybrid vehicles is a crucial step in combating climate change and improving air quality. However, this progress must be balanced with public safety considerations. As governments worldwide advance plans to phase out fossil fuel cars, addressing the increased risk these quieter vehicles pose to pedestrians, especially in urban environments, is essential.

Source: BMJ Journal

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