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Newfangled cars need to make a little noise

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Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A little noise is good for you. It may even save your life.

Don't, for instance, step off a street curb without looking both ways. An electric car might be bearing down on you.

Automobiles on kilowatts are quiet to a fault. They don't pollute, which is the whole idea. But any moving object that weighs a ton ought to give some audible notice that it's passing by, according to the safety police.

Some kind of artificial “look out!” is what the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration has in mind. It proposed a rule that manufacturers of electric and hybrid cars and trucks install a buzz, rumble, rattle, or whatever it takes to quit tooling around at speeds under 18 miles per hour. Over 18 mph, they're OK; they make noise.

It's not that the roads are exactly crowded with electrics as yet.

They cost a ton, tend to have short driving range between recharges, and raise doubts at trade-in time. But fears of global warming aren't going away, nor the suspicion that gasoline-burning — anything burning — helps cause it. So a battery-driven car “refueled” by an overnight plug-in in your garage might make commuting sense for millions.

But they've got to be noised-up. Otherwise, they'll surely run into hearing-impaired or not-thinking-when-they-cross pedestrians.

The government's computers estimate that 2,800 injuries to walkers and bikers would be saved per year if its noise rule takes hold. Not to mention the economic benefits to noisemaking inventors. The public has 60 days to “comment.”

Ironically, modern life is cursed with too many, not too few, decibels smacking the eardrums. Pure silence is a rare, unexpected pleasure. Who hasn't regretted the “roaring traffic's boom” of a Cole Porter song? Or, speaking of music, the piped-in trash you hear in elevators, stores, restrooms, eateries and factories, or the conversation-killing “music” at wedding banquets. Some noise seems positively targeted to bully you: the machine gun nest thunder of a motorcycle taking off from a red light, for example.

Virtually all industrial noise (and kids' “music”) should be brought down as far as possible, for the sake of people's hearing over the long run.

Still, the dignity of mass production, no less than a slope-hooded electric car, ought to make some noise.

A forging press coming down on its dies with tons of hammering bang convincingly bends sheet metal. Molten steel hisses and seethes in ladles. Rolling mills spit, smack and whine. Assembly lines clatter and hum. Forklifts grunt and snuffle, big trucks crowd your rear-view mirror to get attention and then roar by. Ships loaded by squealing container-cranes blow their steam whistles as they wash and splash away from their piers.

Favorite noises can be missed as nostalgically as sights and smells.

In the news business, teletype machines used to chatter in “wire rooms” not far from reporters' clicking typewriters and the whoosh of pneumatic tubes. Now there's a library-like, felt-muffled chorus of computer keyboards, which have to artificially be made noisier than they are to enhance the feeling of work being done.

But there's no question that an automobile ought not to move around city streets like a footpad. Only when electric cars sound like “real” cars will most drivers accept them as cars. Cheaper would help, too.

Jack Markowitz is a Thursday columnist for Trib Total Media. Email

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