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Labels on hybrid cars needed to protect first responders: engineers

Hybrid and electric cars need prominent labeling inside or out to warn rescuers of the hazards posed by their high-voltage systems after a serious crash, according to an influential industry panel.

Hybrids or electrics should have inch-high letters or badges on both sides and the rear that are visible to first responders from at least 50 feet, says the committee of experts from SAE International, formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers, who looked at the issue. An alternative is distinctive lettering on the dashboard that rescuers can easily see through the windows.

The panel issued a variety of other safety recommendations for electrified vehicles, from quick-reference guides for first responders for each electrified model to guidance for tow-truck operators. The recommendations will ensure rescuers “will not get electrocuted,” says John Frala, a member of the committee and an electric-vehicle-repair instructor at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, Calif. “It’s going to save lives.”

Firefighters have worried about risks since the first modern hybrids and electric cars started showing up more than a decade ago. Even though high-voltage lines are often bright orange, the increasing number of electrified models has led to worries that first responders can’t instantly identify vehicles that present special hazards as they go about cutting them up to extract trapped passengers.

“Hybrids and electrics are proliferating like rabbits,” says Buckley Heath, a training officer for the Overland Park, Kan., Fire Department. “If badging is visible from 50 feet, visible on all sides and standardized, that can be nothing but a plus for us.”

While automakers aren’t legally bound by the SAE Hybrid Technical Committee’s recommendations, they typically follow its findings. Automakers fully participated in the SAE process, along with automotive engineers and emergency response experts, says Todd Mackintosh, the committee’s chairman and an engineer for General Motors.

Many automakers already have prominent lettering to indicate electric powertrains, Mackintosh notes. He says distinctive badges, such as Toyota’s “Hybrid Synergy Drive” label on the backs of several models, would suffice. Also, he says, the recommendations allow some “wiggle room” for smaller vehicles.

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