The U.S. government has ruled that it's okay for cars to keep speeding around our cities, and that it is a pedestrian's responsibility to get out of their way. From 2019, all new electric cars will have to make a noise so that pedestrians and cyclists can hear them coming. The dream of a silent city, free from the racket of automobiles, is over.
Instead of making drivers slow down in urban areas, and enforcing the laws that are supposed to keep their attention on the road, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has ruled that all hybrid and electric cars be fitted with an external speaker, which must "make audible noise when traveling in reverse or forward at speeds up to 30 kilometers per hour (about 19 miles per hour)."
"This is a common-sense tool to help pedestrians—especially folks who are blind or have low vision—make their way safely," said NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind in a statement. "With pedestrian fatalities on the rise, it is vitally important we take every action to protect the most vulnerable road users."
Every action apart from making people drive slower, it would seem.
The NHTSA estimates that silent vehicles are 19% more likely to hit a pedestrian than a regular gas-powered car. Reuters says that around 125,000 pedestrians and cyclists are injured annually on the roads, and the NHTSA claims that fitting speakers to cars will prevent around 2,400 pedestrian injuries, annually. While we should try to minimize all harm to people, increasing noise pollution just so cars can continue to plough pedestrians out of the way doesn't seem to be the way to go about it, especially when that noise pollution will affect everyone, while preventing less than 2% (estimated) of injuries.
The law [PDF], which will be effective from September 1, 2019, doesn't specify what kind of sound a car can make, only its minimum level, and when it must be switched on—cars will even have to emit a sound when stationary, and car manufacturers will be free to choose a sound that reflects their branding, or perhaps selected by the driver.
This really does seem backwards, but the biggest irony of all could still be to come. Imagine a future where most or all vehicles are electric. Because these warning sounds switch off above 19 mph (where tire noise is considered enough of a nuisance to get pesky pedestrians jumping out of the way), it might actually end up being quieter to live near a main road than to live in the city center.