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Commission finally tackles problem of traffic noise

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Traffic noise has suddenly moved up the EU agenda, with the Commission promising to cut noise from cars, vans, buses and lorries within five years. A proposal due later this year is expected to seek to reduce car noise by four decibels and lorry noise by three. The issue of noise has lagged behind EU efforts to cut air pollutant emissions, but a recent study suggesting that the benefits of halving vehicle noise would bring massive benefits to society and financial savings to governments appears to have created a sense of urgency in Brussels.

The existing noise limits have not been revised since 1992, and even then they did not bring about the benefits expected. This was largely because the method used to work out a vehicle’s noise was based on test conditions, which differed considerably from real-world driving. Health and environmental organisations have been frustrated at the lack of progress made on traffic noise in the last 15 years, especially as existing noise limits do not act as an incentive for car and lorry makers to use quieter technology.

Following a study by the Dutch consultancy TNO for the Commission, which showed that the benefits to society of stricter vehicle noise standards would outweigh the costs by 20 to one, a Commission official, Philippe Jean, last month announced that a proposal was in preparation that would introduce a better assessment method and tighten vehicle noise limits.

Speaking at a conference organised by T&E together with the EEB and Heal, Jean said the Commission wanted a revised Vehicle Noise Directive that reduced car emissions by two decibels within two years and a further two in four years, while lorry noise would be cut by one decibel within two years and a further two in four years. Allowing a year for the legislation to be approved, this would mean limits of 68 decibels for cars and 78 for lorries in about five years.

Environmental and health groups said the impending proposal was welcome, but far too lax. T&E deputy director Nina Renshaw said: ‘The new standards will apply to new vehicles only, so it will take a long time for the effect of this legislation to make a widespread difference. Current legislation has blatantly failed to tackle the problem of traffic noise, tightening these limits was long overdue, so the Commission should have gone further. A six-decibel reduction would reduce the noise level of an individual vehicle by 75%, so a further step is needed to protect health and improve quality of life for the majority of people who live near roads.’

A recent study by the World Health Organisation said 1.8% of heart attacks in high-income European countries are the result of traffic noise levels above 60 decibels. Further studies have also shown a link between traffic noise and strokes, and slowing learning development in children.