The parking lot and the stealth engine

October 1, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 1, 2014

There’s a shopping center in Durham called the Bull City Market; it’s bounded on the south by West Main Street and on the east by Broad Street, both of which are major roads. The shopping center’s anchor tenant is Whole Foods, which occupies most of the building. The parking lot is nearly always crowded and difficult to negotiate in a car, so when I visit, I usually park on Iredell Street on the center’s back side.

I did that on Monday afternoon, leaving my car beside St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church and ambling south on Iredell on my way to Mad Hatter Bakeshop and Cafe. I hadn’t walked that way in a while, so my eyes were drawn to the fusion Asian restaurant as I strolled; it didn’t seem busy, and I wondered if it had closed.

As I drew abreast with the restaurant entrance, I noticed something out of place. A metal garbage can was sitting in a parking spot nearest the door, blocking any use of the space by vehicles. This seemed to have been a deliberate move made by someone in charge of the restaurant or the shopping center, although I wasn’t entirely sure why.

My eyes also lit upon something resembling a small metal cage had been placed around the storm drain. Again, I wasn’t sure of the reason. It may have been to keep people from slipping; the pavement of the lot drops sharply down from the sidewalk at that point. It seemed like a point where many people might stumble, especially if a car were using the spot, which would limit the space pedestrians would have to recover from a stumble.

While taking all this in, I was nearly injured myself. As I moved past that first blocked parking spot, a red Toyota Prius that had occupied the very next spot began backing up. I was directly in its path, only a foot or three from the car’s rear bumper.

I started, although the car came to a halt almost immediately. I then hastened to step out of the Prius’s way. (Spoiler: No wishy-washy bloggers were injured in the making of this post.)

I suppose that the blame for this narrowly averted collision could be laid entirely at my feet. After all, I wasn’t paying very much attention to where I was going due to my fascination with the garbage can and the storm-drain cage.

But I think the real issue here is hybrid electric-gasoline engines such as the Prius’s, which are extremely quiet.

I know that a 2011 law requires quiet vehicles to make alert noises, but I’m not clear what progress has been made implementing it. This rather skeptical 2011 article about the law indicates that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had until sometime this year to finalize a noise-making standard for quiet vehicle. According to a draft NHTSA rule-making document, manufacturers have up to three years from that point before all of their new vehicles will be required to meet the standard.

As far as I can tell, extant cars needn’t be retrofitted with noise-makers, which means there are (and will continue to be) thousands of stealthy vehicles out there.

The moral of this story, I suppose, is that if you’re walking by a street or parking lot, pay attention to your surroundings. That’s doubly true for drivers, too!


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