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NHTSA chief talks safety at SAE World Congress

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NHTSA chief talks safety at SAE World Congress

David Shepardson and Alisa Priddle / The Detroit News

Detroit -- Federal regulators are moving quickly to make near-silent hybrid vehicles safe for pedestrians, avoid backing-up accidents and minimize driver distraction.

Quiet electric and hybrid vehicles "could potentially put pedestrians at risk, especially blind pedestrians," said National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head David Strickland.

At the Society of Automotive Engineers' annual World Congress, Strickland said Thursday that data from 12 states "shows that hybrid electric vehicles do have a significantly higher incidence rate of pedestrian crashes than internal combustion engines for certain maneuvers -- like slowing or stopping, backing up, entering or leaving a parking space, and making a turn."

NHTSA, he said, is determining "how we might require vehicles to emit a base level of sound at low speeds to provide some level of identification to pedestrians that a vehicle is approaching."

The safety agency also is considering a comprehensive approach to distracted driving -- a term used to describe anything from cell phones to in-car entertainment systems.

"Rather than react to every technology as it pops up and becomes a distraction, NHTSA needs a framework that clearly defines the danger zone for the driver," Strickland said. "We will not take a back seat while new telematics and infotainment systems are introduced."

NHTSA also is working toward minimizing back-over accidents, Strickland said. The government ultimately could require automakers to install rear cameras or other equipment to alert a driver that something or someone is behind a vehicle, before backing up.

In 2007, NHTSA estimated back-over accidents result in at least 183 fatalities annually and about 7,000 injuries.

Other safety experts at the conference urged NHTSA to move cautiously.

When it comes to safety improvements, "be careful what you wish for," said David Champion, senior director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports.

"You have to look at the consequences of improving one aspect of a vehicle that it doesn't harm another."

For example, wider pillars may prevent roofs from crushing in rollover accidents, Champion said, but they may impede drivers' vision.

Also, he noted, Ford Motor Co. made changes in its Escape between 2001 and 2008 that improved fuel efficiency, but the vehicle had a longer stopping distance when the driver hit the brakes.

Safety should not be an option, but standard and global, said Beth Schwarting, a vice president with Delphi Electronics and Safety.

James Vondale, director of Ford's automotive safety office, said he is concerned there will be a dual system of regulations: one U.S. and one for everyone else.

But he said he does not see litigation, or the risk of litigation, as delaying the introduction of new safety technology.

"If you don't roll it out when it is ready, you risk litigation" that you didn't roll it out fast enough or on enough vehicles, Vondale said.

From The Detroit News:


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