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The new law giving sound to electric cars

The new law making electric cars safer. One blind man’s struggle to get the right mental health support.

From July 2019, all new electric vehicles will have sounds added to keep pedestrians safe. Transport minister Michael Ellis, gives us the government’s take. We also hear the thoughts of Jessica Schröder from the German national organisation for the blind, a member of the European Blind Union which led the campaign to add a sound to electric and hybrid vehicles. She tells us why she doesn’t think the new law goes far enough.

When Ashley Cox needed help with his mental health, he went online to find a therapist. Eight of them said no straight away, because they felt uncomfortable working with a blind person. He eventually found one and is now doing well, but he doesn’t want anybody else to have a similar experience.

Presenter: Lee Kumutat
Producer: Emma Tracey

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19 minutes

In Touch Transcript: 02-07-19

Downloaded from www.bbc.co.uk/radio4

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT.  BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.


IN TOUCH – The new law giving sound to electric cars

TX:  02.07.2019  2040-2100

PRESENTER:           LEE KUMUTAT

PRODUCER:             EMMA TRACEY

 

Kumutat

Welcome to the programme.  Have you been surprised by the undetected presence of a silent electric or hybrid car as you’ve gone about your day?  It’s something visually impaired people have been saying they’re very concerned about for years.  And while it will still take some time steps are being made to make them louder.

 

Electric car noise

 

And one blind man struggles to get help with his mental health.

 

Starting from the 1st July all newly manufactured electric and hybrid vehicles with four wheels, so no scooters, must have acoustic vehicle alert systems built in, or AVAS.  And that’s according to a new EU regulation.  Research done by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association shows electric cars are about 40% more likely to hit a pedestrian, that’s any pedestrian, than diesel or petrol cars.  But now up to a speed of 12 miles per hour they’ll play a sound that can’t be turned off by the driver.  And there are other criteria the sound must meet as well.

 

Jessica Schröder from the DBVS – the German national organisation for the blind – told me what these are at the moment.

 

Schröder

The AVAS should be active from a limit from zero up to 20 kilometres per hour and it should be active during reversing, during forward mode and it can be active also during stationary sound, but this is a voluntary clause in the regulation itself.  And it may have a pause switch, at least until now, but from 2021 onwards the pause switch is forbidden in new cars who will be released on the market and 2023 the pause switch will be prohibited for all cars which will be launched on the market.

 

Kumutat

You know, yourself, as a blind person that we listen very carefully to the engines of cars and you can judge a margin each way as to where the outside of the car is or the length of a car.  Where does the sound come from?

 

Schröder

The car’s sound will be generated from two loudspeakers, one is on the front and one is on the rear.  The sound should also indicate the car’s behaviour.  So, it means that if the car is starting the sound will be lower but when the car will accelerate the pitch of the sound will increase so that people will know, okay, they can locate the car, they know the motion of a car and they also can indicate if the car is decelerating or accelerating.

 

Kumutat

Jessica Schröder there.

 

So, just how onboard is the UK government with this new law?  I spoke to Minister of State for the Department of Transport Michael Ellis.

 

Can I ask you first minister, do you own an electric vehicle?

 

Ellis

Actually, I own a hybrid – Toyota Prius – is my own personal car and it’s just topped 100,000 miles.

 

Kumutat

So, you’ve had it a while then?

 

Ellis

I’ve had it for 12 years, as it happens.

 

Kumutat

So, as a hybrid vehicle owner and also as a government minister what’s your take on this law that’s coming into force?

 

Ellis

Well I think it’s a very good idea.  This encourages safety on the roads, it reduces the likelihood of accidents or incidents because clearly it will help those with disabilities but also those like children or those who might not be paying the fullest of attention realise that a vehicle is coming, at a slow speed, when otherwise it might be silent.

 

Kumutat

Well minister I think it’s fair to say that the visually impaired people we’ve spoken to have met this with cautious optimism.  Just have a listen to Fran, who we spoke to earlier.

 

Fran

I said: How come I never heard you?  Where did you come from?  And she just said:  Oh, I’ve got an electric car.  And at that point I realised that they don’t make a noise at all.  So, even if I’d just possibly been able to see it, I certainly didn’t hear it.  And where on earth she was going and what speed she was doing I’ve no idea, I’m just assuming she must have slammed on her brakes but it literally was centimetres, if that.

 

Kumutat

Do you think the law goes far enough in terms of the type of sound that these vehicles should be producing once they’re installed?

 

Ellis

Well I think it does Lee.  I mean look these vehicles are going to be making a noise that is automatic, it’s not dependent on the driver switching it on.

 

Kumutat

Which they are at the moment?

 

Ellis

Which they might be at the moment, if it’s an optional feature.  These are going to come on automatically and they will also switch off automatically, this noise generating.  As for the noise itself it’s not going to be a beeping noise or some type of alien noise that might be annoying.  What it’ll be is the same type of noise, manufactured acoustic sound, that you would expect from a vehicle of about that power and at about that speed.  So, it is consistent with what we’re used to in terms of the noise of a vehicle.

 

Kumutat

Although there’s some grey area around that, isn’t there, because we’ve got a clip from a noise – a sound that a BMW will be making and this was actually put together by Hans Zimmer, the composer.  Just have a listen to this and tell me whether you think it sounds like a car.

 

Electric car noise – Hans Zimmer

 

So, to me, that sounds more like a rising chord of some kind.  What do you think?

 

Ellis

That sounded a little bit like Doctor Who.  But I think actually the test is here, is this, we want people to be able to hear the ongoing vehicle but we also have to recognise that we don’t want unnecessary superfluous noise that is an annoyance to people and that goes over and above what is necessary in the prevention of accidents.  My main priority, as minister with responsibility for roads, is safety.  That is, for me, the alpha and omega of the whole thing.  But scientists have worked on this, together with regulators, vehicle manufacturers, this has been something that’s been in the pipeline since 2014, when it was first mooted, and they’ve decided on this noise, which is supposed to replicate – and I appreciate it’s not necessarily going to be exact – but it’s supposed to replicate the sort of noise that would be consistent with what you would expect from something coming along the road if you were visually impaired, you’re relying on the acoustics, and you’re going to then recognise that there is something coming and you have to be cautious.

 

Kumutat

So, we’ve heard the arguments about – this is going to benefit a lot of people, people who are looking at their phones, yes, but people who are looking at their phones can look up from their phones, if you’re visually impaired you can’t look up and see a car.  So, there are some concerns that the sound should be kept on at higher speeds, for example, if you’ve got a car that’s braking the law and running a red light, as it were, that that would be absolutely positively heard by a visually impaired person who might be about to set off across the road.

 

Ellis

I think that this generation of noise, up to the point of 12 miles per hour, actually does address the key issues because frankly even these quiet vehicles, even hybrid vehicles, they will make noise above about 20 kilometres per hour.  And also, the very movement of tyres on a road surface will generate noise above a certain speed that should ameliorate the difficulties that you’re referring to.  So – and I take your point completely but those with a visual impairment are dependent very much on the noise that these vehicles are making.  We haven’t had that up to this point, we’re now mandating it with immediate effect.  The key thing is that whereas previously these quiet and hybrid vehicles will have made no noise at that speed, now they will be making a noise.  And there are bodies of experts – acoustic technicians, manufacturers, regulators – who will be and have been looking at – and listening – to what noises should be generated because it’s a balance, as we’ve said.  But, for me, the most important thing is safety.  And I think this does Lee, this really does address the issue of safety in a positive way.

 

Kumutat

Well I hear what you’re saying, that it’s better than we were and it is a start but it is a work in progress.  Can I ask you the question that will be upwards on most people’s mind:  Will this stay in place after Brexit?

 

Ellis

The good news is, this is one of those things, Lee, that is not affected by Brexit.

 

Kumutat

But if it’s an EU law are you saying that the UK government is definitely undertaking not to change the EU law that requires this sound?

 

Ellis

Well clearly I can’t bind the hands of future governments and future decisions but this decision, this regulation, is being implemented because of the concerns of visually impaired people, in particular, about the potential risks posed by quiet electric and hybrid electric vehicles and the recognition that adding noise can give pedestrians added confidence when crossing the road, for example.  That isn’t going to change by Brexit, that is still going to be an issue one way or the other.  And so, therefore, I think the requirements for this system will be retained in UK law and will continue to apply upon exit from the EU.

 

Kumutat

Minister of State for the Department of Transport Michael Ellis there.

 

But does Jessica Schröder from the German association for the blind feel it goes far enough?

 

 Schröder

To put a ban to the pause switch, even though we think the timeframe until it really gets implemented, is far too long.  We also think that all cars should be equipped with a stationary sound, it shouldn’t be just a voluntary requirement to do that, because we really need to have a stationary sound to detect a car early enough to know where it is, you know, all of that.  And also we think that cars should be retrofitted, cars which are already on  the market should be retrofitted with an AVAS system, so that every car has an AVAS system and that people can be safe on the streets because up till now there are already one million cars on the streets and just a tiny portion of them is equipped with an AVAS system.

 

Kumutat

And if you want to call us on 0161 8361338 and leave a message with your thoughts on all or any of that, please do.  I’ll give the number again at the end of the programme.

 

Now asking for help can really make you feel vulnerable but what if you have to ask for it again and again and again? 

 

Ashley Cox plucked up the courage to seek counselling in 2018 after years of struggling with mental health difficulties.  He didn’t think it would be so hard to find a professional willing to see him.

 

Cox

It was around August 2014 that I first went to an NHS GP and I was suicidal, I was in a career that I hated.  I’d come out of college straight into that career, I’d always been self-employed.  I did try and find work but, as has been well documented, that’s not an easy thing for us either.  So, I think it was a combination of things and obviously there’s a lot of things, sometimes, that can come with having a disability and a lot of traumas that can occur surrounding that.  It’s one of those situations where you kind of let it all bottle up and eventually it boils over.

 

Kumutat

And tell me what happened when you went to the GP.

 

Cox

She did a PHQ9 test, which is a test to assess the severity of depression.  I got a high score on that.  And then she suggested that I might have a thyroid problem.  So, she sent me off for blood tests, so that we could check, and everything looked fine.  So, she gave me a leaflet for Action for the Blind, who are a visual impairment charity.  And that was it.

 

Kumutat

How did that leave you feeling when you kind of left that office?

 

Cox

I guess disappointed obviously, as anyone would be and angry at the system and what not but also in some ways not necessarily very surprised, I guess.  And I also struggle to convey how I’m feeling.  I remember walking in and I sat down and she said: What’s wrong with you?  And I said – I sort of paused and thought what am I going to say now.  So, it was like – Well, I think I’m depressed.  So, you know, and it sounds really stupid when it comes out of your mouth and you think why did I say that.  But what do you say in that situation?  In fairness, I did in – end of 2018, just before I started applying for counselling I went back to the NHS and saw a different doctor who was actually really good and she gave me medication and that’s – seeing her as an ongoing thing, which is great.

 

Kumutat

You sought help and you’ve been having therapy since 2018.  How did you go about getting that help this time?

 

Cox

I went into an online counselling directory and just started picking therapists.

 

Kumutat

And what happened?

 

Cox

The first eight therapists that I contacted over a period of a couple of months didn’t want to work with me because of my blindness.  I contacted them – some of them via email and some of them via phone – and in all correspondence as soon as I mentioned the blindness that was when the rejection happened.

 

Kumutat

Would they not even entertain the idea of meeting with you, to see if you could work together?

 

Cox

I did ask a couple and the ones that kind of didn’t straight up hang up on me or straight up say no, I did ask a couple but they were just really unsure of how they would handle the sessions and how they would cope with the disability, as it were, and the practicalities of it and they clearly had absolutely no training in it whatsoever and they really nervous about taking on a disabled client.  And I said to them that I don’t get offended and if you want to ask me a question then I’ll give you an honest answer and we can work through it.  But no, unfortunately, it didn’t work out.

 

Kumutat

I mean goodness me, Ashley, it’s hard enough for people to reach out and admit that they need help, let alone then reach out eight times in order to get that help.  Some people might have reached out a few times, if they had started therapy, it wasn’t perhaps for them or they didn’t click with therapist, but eight rejections without actually seeing somebody face-to-face.  I mean I can’t imagine how that would feel.  How did it make you feel?

 

Cox

You start wondering if it’s you or if you’ve – somehow you’ve said something or done something.  For me, as a disabled person, I’ve kind of developed quite a thick skin, so I tend to just laugh things off and – I don’t know, I try not to think about it really.  It’s a sad reality I suppose.

 

Kumutat

And would you feel confident about looking for a therapist again, if you felt you ever needed to, and would you do it in a different way, would you look for somebody who said that they could deal with disability?

 

Cox

Well interestingly a lot of the – on a lot of the profiles of the therapists that I contacted they did have disability listed in their skills, so I probably wouldn’t use that as a guide.  Yeah, I probably would but then at least I’d know what to expect this time round.

 

Kumutat

What do you think could and perhaps should be done so that other people don’t go through what you had to?

 

Cox

It’s just about societal awareness and asking questions.  Disability doesn’t define us, you know, just because I’m blind, the fact that I’m blind means I can’t see, it doesn’t mean I’m cognitively impaired, it just means I literally can’t use my eyes.

 

Kumutat

But do you think it means that in some cases if you are struggling with your mental health that it can be down to your disability and that you would need a particular set of skills and expertise as a counsellor to be able to help with that?

 

Cox

I think 100% it can be down to disability, I mean that was definitely one of the aspects that caused the issues that I’ve had, but I don’t think you need a particular counsellor for it, I think it’s – the techniques that my therapist taught me were, as far as I could tell, were kind of universal. 

 

Kumutat

What strategies did you find helped you the most?

 

Cox

Mainly things for dealing with anxiety.  Just learning, in a way, to realise that things are sometimes going to be harder and that I should recognise that because I tend to just sort of push through and just accept that things are going to be harder rather than actually taking a moment to sit back and say look, that was difficult and you achieved it, so well done, you know.

 

Kumutat

Ashley Cox there.  And we wish him all the best.

 

If you’d like to contact us and tell us about your experiences with the mental health system as a visually impaired person you can leave us a message with your comments on 0161 8361338.  You can also write them down – sometimes a bit easier – in an email:  intouch@bbc.co.uk.  To listen to this and many other In Touch’s visit www.bbc.co.uk/intouch.

And you can call the Samaritans for free from any phone on 116123.

From me, Lee Kumutat, producer Emma Tracey, and the team, goodbye.

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