Time to Put the NE In NEV

By Bill Moore

Posted: 07 Jan 2010

Why should Nebraska allow neighborhood electric vehicles on its streets?

That's sort of the question I was asked yesterday by the legislative assistant to my local state Senator. I have been trying for years now to drum up interest in getting Nebraska to pass legislation that would allow low-speed electric vehicles or NEVs to operate on our public streets, as long as the speed limit is 35 mph or less.

I've not had a lot of success rallying much support. Now it appears things may be changing, and really, it is time when you consider that every surrounding state with the exception of Wyoming to our west has passed legislation permitting their use. South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado: all have laws allowing NEVs on their streets. Why shouldn't we, I keep asking?

But, do we really need them? We've gotten along just dandy without these "golf cars on steroids." Why here? Why now?

That's a fair question and of course my knee-jerk reaction as a staunch electric vehicle advocate is, "absolutely we need them."

But in reality, who are "we"? Is "we" me? My neighbors here in Papillion, in Sarpy County or any of the state's 92 other counties? To be honest, I am not sure who "we" is, but I do know that the state senators who are going to review the bill or amendment allowing operation of NEVs are certainly going to ask themselves that question, and probably ask me when I am called to testify, assuming the measure gets that far.

"Mr Moore, who do you envision using these vehicles and for what purpose?" one of the transportation subcommittee members is sure to ask me.

I am considering framing my answer this way.

"Senator, a large part of the reason I am here today is because this body is considering a measure that would make it legal for All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) to operate on public roads in the State. Am I correct in assuming that constituents have asked this body to pass such a measure because those vehicles provide a useful form of personal mobility for many Nebraskans? Teens can visit their friends, parents can run small errands, families can have fun without having to drag out the 4X4 or SUV.

"My brother-in-law in Northern Idaho has two such machines and he and I have had a lot of fun exploring the back roads of Idaho's beautiful mountains in the summer on them. His neighbors use them continually in their small mountain community to run to the local grocery or auto parts store. They are a great way to get around.

"For much the same reason, so are neighborhood electric vehicles, and it can be argued that they provide even greater utility than your average ATV. Most carry at least two adults, some four. But beyond that, is their superior safety. In 2007, 750 people died in ATV-related accidents in this country and an estimate 146,600 were admitted to hospital emergency rooms for injuries, according to federal statistics.

"When the U.S. Department of Transportation authorized the institution of FMVSS 500, creating a special vehicle category for low-speed electric vehicles or what we call NEVs, they did so with the understanding that those vehicles must include important safety features if they are to operate in mixed traffic on public steets. Among these are a requirement for seat belts, safety windshield glass, windshield wipers, headlights and turn signals. Additionally, they limited a NEVs top speed to 25 mph and restricted their operation to streets with speed limits under 35 mph. All these requirements are meant to protect passengers. No such requirements are placed on ATVs.

"Beyond the question of relative safety, Senator, are larger national and economic security concerns.

"In 2007, Nebraskans alone burned 43.7 million barrels of petroleum: 46.5% as gasoline, 39.4% as diesel distillates. Because the state's oil reserves have fallen from a peak of 100 million barrels in 1961 to just 12 million barrel in 2007, it means most of the petroleum you and I burn has to be imported into the state at a annual cost to the economy in excess of $2 billion. Sixty percent of that, however, pays for oil imported from outside the United States. Nationally, we spend as much on imported oil as the entire Pentagon budget, and according to the Institute for Analysis of Global Security, every $1 billion that leaves the national economy costs us some 37,000 lost jobs.

"Electric-powered vehicles like NEVs use locally-produced energy from indigenous sources -- coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydropower, wind -- and they do so with an efficiency that pales the internal combustion engine. Because of their efficiency, their overall emissions -- even when the power is generated largely from coal-fired thermal-electric power plants -- is half to one-third that of a gasoline engine vehicle.

"To your question Senator of who will use a NEV and for what purpose, I would respond that many of the same people that find it useful and practical to use an ATV inside city limits. Anecdotally, in states where NEV operations on public streets are permitted, owners find that their low-speed electric vehicle can often replace the use of their gasoline-powered vehicle for many of those close-in errands we all run such as trips to the post office or grocery store. Delivery businesses, especially, would find them useful as is the case in Portland, Oregon where Hot Lips Pizza uses them to deliver pizzas in the downtown Pearl District. In California, UPS leases them to do neighborhood package delivery during the Christmas holiday season. In Washington, DC vendors sell food to government workers and tourists from them. In Alaska, an enterprising hardware store owner rents them to cruise ship passengers to tour Sitka during the summer, while in Key West, you can rent them to tour the island in the winter.

"Permitting the operation of NEVs on our public streets would offer Nebraska families and businesses the choice of not having to use gasoline for each and every trip they make. It would provide them the option to use Nebraska-produced electric power. It would provide them with an affordable way to operate a vehicle that is quiet, clean and from the point of view of its owner, emissions free. It would give parents of teenagers a new choice for their child's first car, and would offer older Nebraskans that may not have the physical dexterity or acuity to safely drive a full-sized vehicle any longer an important new vehicle for personal mobility.

"Finally, Senator, because I believe these vehicles should be licensed and insured, just as you would a conventional motor vehicle, it would provide the state with an added revenue source that it currently doesn't enjoy. I am not asking the legislature to extend anymore privileges to NEVs than what it may be considering giving ATVs. I am simply asking that you give Nebraska families and businesses the opportunity to choose. It's time, Senator, we put the NE in NEV."

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