Car Noise Pollution 2
The automobile is responsible for  approx. 80% of noise pollution. 
Charles.Chauvet - - Creative commons.  

  "Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience. Noise must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere." Dr. William H. Stewart, former U.S. Surgeon General (4).

The city, we are told, is a noisy place, but this is not entirely true.  It is not really the city that is noisy but the automobile.  Previous generations could never have imagined the noise levels that the automobile would bring to the world’s cities. Stand in the centre of many of the world’s cities today for more than a few hours and you literally risk permanent and incurable hearing loss. As vehicle noise grows, the streets are gradually abandoned.  The effort of straining to hear or shouting to be heard just gets too much.

For clear speech perception the background noise level should not exceed 35 dB (5) but traffic noise can hit 85 dB, which is an incredible 32 times louder (6). The Office of Noise and Abatement Control, within the US Environmental Protection Agency, reported that exposure to noise above 70 dB for an extended period can cause permanent hearing damage, yet traffic noise in the average city hits 85 decibels. In larger cities like New York the noise level often exceeds 90db (1).

Noise levels are worse in some places than others but sadly there are precious few places left that escape the ever-present noise of the automobile. Over half the homes in England and Wales are now exposed to noise levels exceeding the WHO’s maximum recommended threshold of 55 dB (7) - (that’s not a recommended level, now, that’s a maximum level!) with 80% of residents stating that they found the noise to be irritating (8).

The truth is probably worse than even these figures imply.  In the UK 32 million people are regularly exposed to high levels of noise (55-75 dB) (9)Vehicle noise is now so pervasive that people lack the experience of silence with which to compare it. It is not just “outside”; the noise of the automobile follows us into our homes. We find ourselves seeking out the quieter corners of our homes, mostly unaware that we are even doing it: “It’s just that the back of the house feels more comfortable”.  When noise levels become unbearable we spend thousands insulating our homes, soundproofing windows, porches and doors. When that fails, many simply abandon their homes altogether, selling them on to those who cannot afford to live anywhere quieter.

There is a myth that claims you get “used” to noise , but it’s nonsense. People exposed to constant automobile noise will have higher measured levels of stress hormones. The WHO  reports that over 40% of EU citizens are now exposed to noise levels over 55dB, a level that causes sleep disturbance (10). Research in Berlin shows that in sleeping persons traffic noise of 30 to 55 dB caused an acute increase of the stress hormone cortisol, which developed into chronic increase if the noise exposure was repeated consistently (11) . Not everyone can identify where the stress is coming from. They sense something is wrong, they feel stressed and tired,  most might just put it down to “modern life”. But you can be sure of one thing, expose people to constant automobile noise and the stress will follow. Worse still, the longer they are exposed to the noise the worse the health impact gets. Noise is stress and eventually the body gives in.


Car Noise Pollution 3

 Over half the homes in England and Wales are exposed to noise exceeding the WHO’s maximum threshold (8)
Photo: Robert Partridge. Creative commons 


Stress manifests itself in many different ways, ranging from bad moods to fatigue and the inability to concentrate. Noise has also been linked to aggression in humans as well as to a reduction in levels of co-operation. Over time it can lead to serious health problems. According to Dr. Alice H. Suter of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, constant exposure to road noise can lead to “peptic ulcers, high blood pressure, cardiovascular deaths, strokes, suicides and degradation of the immune system” (12) . Moreover, research by Charité University Medical Center in Berlin suggests that traffic noise can increase the risk of heart attack by nearly 50 percent for men and 300 percent for women (13) . Exposure to automobile noise doesn’t just degrade your quality of life; it can result in sickness and it can kill you. The Norwegian pollution control authority has stated: “Road traffic is definitively the major source of noise pollution being responsible for 80 per cent of total noise annoyance” (2).

The automobile is the dominant cause of noise pollution but the surprisingly powerful automobile industry has employed lobbyists to prevent any action to prevent it. In the US the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Noise and Abatement Control disappeared under the Reagan Administration; perhaps it made a noise someone didn’t like ! (14). Noise pollution may be acceptable to the automobile industry but if we are serious about creating cities that enhance our lives then the level we should aim for is “PEACEFUL”.  It used to be this way.  We do our communities a disservice when we accept less.


Traffic Noise Pollution 4


"Cavernous sides of buildings amplify the volume
As colliding blasts of noise judder back and forth.
Bird song is sucked down and asphyxiated
Beneath a characterless swamp of sound."
Autogeddon, Heathcote Williams (15)