Silent running

I love our Toyota Prius. It’s fun to drive, makes me feel greener than I have any right to, and gets great gas mileage. It does, however, have one huge drawback; it doesn’t make any noise when it backs up. If you’re thinking, “Hey, my car doesn’t make any noise either, what’s the problem?” you’re mistaken. I’m not talking about the backup beep that trucks make. I’m talking about the regular engine-running-noise that most cars make all the time, whether they’re going backwards or forwards.

The Prius is a gas/electric hybrid. When the car is moving slowly, the battery is doing the work, not the engine, so it moves along quietly, with only the noise of the tires on the pavement. When it comes to a complete stop, it falls silent. (First time passengers always think the car has stalled at that point.) When you put a Prius in reverse and take your foot off the brake pedal, there is no audible clue that the car is beginning to move. In a parking lot, this silent running can be dangerous.

We have a small shopping plaza in our neighborhood that has Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, and Walgreens. It’s a busy place with, from my layperson’s perspective, a poorly designed parking lot. There is no prescribed traffic pattern so it’s rarely entirely clear who is at fault when there is a dust up between cars; there are so many ways to go wrong. Between a car and a pedestrian though, the pedestrian is usually right, unless the car is a Prius.

One day, after a quick stop at Walgreens, I got back in the car, checked each of my three mirrors, swiveled my head until I was dizzy, and eased backwards out of my parking space. I heard a loud “Hey!” and stopped. An older man and a younger woman had appeared in the tiny space of blind spot, during a split second when I must have blinked. I rolled down my window and called, “Oh! I’m so sorry.” The woman yelled back something like, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” or “You almost killed us!” I stuttered that I was sorry again and drove off when it became clear that they were not the forgiving sort. But at that point, I was mad.

While it’s true that the Prius is quiet when backing up, it does have back-up lights. Do pedestrians eschew all responsibility for their own safety on principal? Yes, the law is on the side of the pedestrian. Does that mean you should close your eyes and step off the curb without checking to see if anyone’s coming? Is being right enough compensation for being dead?

When we bought the Prius, early in ’05, it did beep when you put it in reverse – inside the car! The only people alerted were the ones buckled safely in their seats. In short order, Andrew figured out how to silence the beep. If he could figure out how to make it audible on the outside, we’d all be a little bit safer.


6 responses to “Silent running

  1. I relate to this in the sense of bicyclists always blaming cars when we don’t see them. One reason we don’t is that they are daredevils who refuse to behave like pedestrians when they are on the sidewalk and like cars when they are on the road.

    My prime example: When I check a crosswalk for pedestrians, I check within a reasonable distance up the street given the pace at which humans without wheels move.

    Then a biker comes speeding down the sidewalk, whizzes into the intersection as if he is a pedestrian with priority to cross the street over a car, and can’t understand why I didn’t see him (usually it is a him).

    And then he gives me the finger.

  2. Feel free to park at my house when you are going to TJs, Walgreens, etc. Or I can lend you a horn to hang out the window and beep as you back up in parking lots.

  3. It’s so odd that it just had a consistent backing up beep inside. What’s the point? If it doesn’t go faster as you get closer to objects, it serves no purpose.

    As an ex-examiner, I hate to tell you, but anytime you hit a pedestrian, you’re 100% at fault. No exceptions. And you know what abbreviation we used? PKD for Pedestrian Knocked Down. Bicyclists were BKD. You’d be 100% at fault for that too.

  4. See the National Federation of the Blind’s website:

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