MEP Alyn Takes the High Road to Helping the Blind

LEADING Euro MP Alyn Smith put his life in someone else’s hands today - a guide dog and his instructor.

Alyn donned a blindfold and deliberately stepped out into a busy road to find out for himself just how dangerous crossing the carriageway can be and how an assistance dog can help.

Luckily, Alyn had one thing in his favour - he might not have been able to see the road, but he was able to hear vehicles and so knew something was approaching.

However, the growth in recent years in hybrid and electric vehicles means traffic is becoming quieter and quieter.

This may be a welcome development for many of us, but for the blind it is a real source of danger, as it means they may no longer be able to hear and react to oncoming traffic.

SNP MEP Alyn’s blindfolded walk across Milton Road East, Edinburgh today was intended to draw attention to this problem in advance of an important vote in the European Parliament next week.

On February 5, MEPs will vote to make it compulsory for artificial engine noises to be fitted to so-called quiet vehicles - a move he strongly backs.

Speaking after his walk across the road with 18-month-old assistance dog Preston and instructor Gavin Neate from Guide Dogs Scotland, Alyn said: “Being led blindfold into the road was a pretty frightening experience, but it was something I was determined to do as I wanted to see what everyday life is really like for blind people.

“Of course I had complete trust in Preston and Gavin, but it made me appreciate two things - firstly, how important guide dogs are to blind people and secondly, just how useful it is for them to be able to hear traffic noise.

“Quiet vehicles are potentially dangerous to all pedestrians, but especially so to the blind or partially sighted who rely on hearing engine noise when they’re crossing the road.

“In the USA, the government has recently announced that it plans to force manufacturers to install a sound generator on all quiet hybrid and electric vehicles. It believes that the move could prevent thousands of accidents a year, and I’m sure that’s true in Europe too.

“Unfortunately, the proposed EU legislation doesn’t actually make the fitting of sound generators mandatory - but an amendment has been tabled which would make them compulsory, and I’ll be backing that.

He added: “It’s a hugely important issue for blind people in particular, as they rely on noise to know when it is safe for them and their guide dogs to cross the road.

“The sound allows them to judge the distance and speed of an approaching vehicle, what it is and how big it is, whether it is accelerating or slowing down, and if it is going forward or reversing.

“While the energy saving aspects of quiet vehicles are obviously to be welcomed, they do present a danger to pedestrians.

“Research showed that the number of crashes they were involved in increased nearly threefold between 2005 and 2008 and in the case of some manoeuvres, they’re significantly more likely to be involved in an accident with someone crossing the road or a cyclist than a conventional vehicle.

“These figures help to prove that there is a real case for introducing noise generators to help the blind and partially sighted in particular, and I’ll be pressing for the toughest possible legislation when this comes before the European Parliament next week.”

Julie Millar, Engagement Manager for Guide Dogs Scotland, urged Alyn’s fellow European parliamentarians to also recognise the importance of the issue and vote in favour of compulsory artificial engine noises.

“The EU is looking at this, but its proposals don’t do enough to protect pedestrians,” she added. “MEPs need to stop, look and listen to the concerns of road users and make sure that quiet cars can be heard on our streets.”

NOTE

Research at the University of California presented in 2008 demonstrated that pedestrians could not detect a hybrid car travelling at five miles per hour until it was just seven feet away, while a petrol car could be detected when it was 28 feet away. This meant that, in terms of timing, the hybrid car could not be heard until it was just one second away from the pedestrian. See http://newsroom.ucr.edu/1803.