NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Government Enforced Noise Pollution

July 22, 2013

Early this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published a proposed rule that would require hybrid and electric vehicles to make a sound while being operated at speeds slower than 18 miles per hour. Because they use an electric motor, hybrid and electric vehicles generate less noise than conventional vehicles with internal combustion engines, and legislators and regulators alike are concerned that pedestrians could be injured by a vehicle that they can't hear coming, says Sofie E. Miller, a policy analyst in the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center.

  • Under the 2010 Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, NHTSA must conduct a safety standard rulemaking to establish an "alert sound" for hybrid and electric vehicles.
  • The act requires that the noise made by a hybrid or electric vehicle could allow a pedestrian, especially a sight-impaired pedestrian, to identify the direction of the vehicle.
  • NHTSA is also operating under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which requires NHTSA safety standards to "be performance-oriented, practicable, and objective, and meet the need for safety."

According to agency data, hybrid vehicle crashes are 40 percent more likely to involve a pedestrian than internal combustion engines vehicle crashes.

  • Many of those crashes occur at low speeds, when hybrid cars' noisy internal combustion engines often aren't in use.
  • Interestingly, the biggest crash differential between a hybrid and its internal combustion engine counterpart was between the Civic hybrid and the Civic internal combustion engine, despite the fact that the Civic hybrid's internal combustion engine does not shut off even at idle and the two cars create a similar level of noise.

NHTSA estimates that 35 pedestrian lives would be saved as a result of this rule, at a cost of $830,000 to $990,000 per life. The total cost estimated for this proposal is about $25 million, adding about $30 in cost to the production of each sound-enhanced hybrid or electric vehicle.

  • Given that NHTSA concedes that there are no studies that have linked the increase in the detectability of a sound to a reduction in the risk of crashes between electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles and pedestrians, the supposed benefits from the proposed rule may be overstated.
  • Further, NHTSA does not appear to have considered the negative health effects of noisy vehicles; noise pollution has been regulated in the past by other agencies.
  • Some of the noise standards in the proposed "noisy car" regulation are so loud that they would meet Federal Aviation Administration's threshold for regulatory noise-remediation efforts if implemented.

Source: Sofie E. Miller, "Questioning NHTSA's 'Noisy Electric Cars' Rule," Regulation Magazine, Summer 2013.


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