Delegation of noise standard to UN-ECE could lead to louder cars

September 11, 2009

The dangers of the United Nations’ Geneva office taking over responsibility for regulating aspects of European transport have been thrown into sharp focus, after a draft for a legally binding standard designed to cut noise from cars allowed for traffic noise to get much louder.

As Bulletin went to press, the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe said it was delaying any decision for at least six months. This delay followed intervention by T&E to expose the draft new standard and the fact that it had been written by a representative of the German sports car company, Porsche. The story was widely covered in the German media, with support for T&E’s call for the EU to regulate vehicle noise itself.

Environmental groups have been increasingly concerned about the EU’s willingness to delegate responsibility for certain standards to the Geneva-based UN-ECE, largely because UN-ECE meetings are held behind closed doors and national government officials are frequently accompanied and closely advised by industry figures.

So alarm bells rang when a UN-ECE working group on noise proposed a new test, intended to reduce vehicle noise. The new test should target peak noise levels when car engines are working hardest, but delegates from Germany and the Netherlands showed it would in fact allow what is known as ‘sound design’ on high-powered cars and lead to noise increases of 3 decibels on average, and up to 10 decibels compared to the current standards.

This means vehicles could legally be up to 10 times louder, and the most high-powered engines could be as loud as a low-flying jet aircraft.

The standard was drawn up by Hans-Martin Gerhard of Porsche, on behalf of the International Organisation of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers (OICA). Gerhard was quoted in an American newspaper in 2003 as saying, ‘The calibre of a car is revealed by the exhaust note and the burst of noise from the car’s drive train during acceleration.’

T&E policy officer Nina Renshaw said, ‘It’s bad enough that a supposedly independent regulatory body is dictated to by industry, but that the person writing the rules comes from one of the worst offenders in the field of vehicle noise is simply astonishing.

‘The UN-ECE group has failed to deliver any effective reduction in road noise over almost 40 years. The EU must take back control of vehicle noise standards and start taking this important public health issue seriously.’

A growing realisation among EU members that road noise levels could rise, as well as concern about the democratic deficit of the UN-ECE compared with the EU, prompted the UN-ECE to say it will not make any decision until February at the earliest. In the meantime, the Netherlands has prepared an alternative proposal.

The regulation is due to apply to the 27 EU members plus 19 other countries including Australia, Japan, Korea and South Africa.

The current maximum noise level in the EU for cars is 74 decibels, or 75 for sports cars. Last year, a study for T&E suggested that current road traffic noise is responsible for around 50 000 deaths a year in Europe.

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