• It’s time to make a noise about a forgotten problem

    Editorial by Nina Renshaw Imagine a situation in which the legally permitted maximum levels for vehicle emissions are the same as they were 30 years ago. Not only would it be socially and environmentally irresponsible, but it would be entirely unnecessary, given the advances in automotive technology and fuels. So why does the EU accept a situation in which noise standards have not increased in real terms since the 1970s?

    Traffic noise affects millions of people in Europe – around a third of the population in the EU’s 15 pre-2004 member states live in homes exposed to noise levels defined as a nuisance or potentially damaging to health. Since the 1970s, there have been many technological advances in vehicles, tyres and road surfaces, yet our roads are louder than ever. This is reflected in falling house prices next to busy roads.

    Traffic noise can lead to serious physical and psychological health effects. Hearing damage is the most obvious, but the results of long-term annoyance and sleep disturbance are just as worrying. Exposure to noise can cause increased heart rate and blood pressure. Recent research from Denmark has found a link between premature deaths caused by high blood pressure and heart problems and traffic noise, and there is evidence that noise damages child development. Noise exposure can also have detrimental effects on mental health. Even in cases where health is not directly at risk, noise clearly has a negative impact on residents’ quality of life.

    The problem also often reflects social inequalities. The problem also often reflects social inequalities; disadvantaged sections of society are often most at risk from inner-city traffic noise or homes located near to main roads. The most vulnerable members of society, the elderly, children and those with other health problems, are found to be most at risk from the negative impacts of noise.

    Yet what action is taken? As roads get louder, barriers get higher (the noise equivalent of the “tall chimney” solution to air pollution). Such barriers are incredibly costly as well as ugly – the burden paid by local and regional governments, and ultimately funded by the taxpayer. And most of the rules on noise limits are effectively set by the UN Economic Commission for Europe, a forum known for taking the lowest level of action.

    All the time, better solutions are available in the form of silent tyres, quieter vehicles and quieter surfaces. These are all recognised as far more cost-effective – and generally smarter – in bringing improved conditions for residents and road users, and they would reduce the strain on the budgets of local and regional authorities.

    These solutions are compatible with making vehicles cleaner and safer, yet there has been very little pressure on industry to produce lower noise vehicles or tyres. Production still lags far behind the best-available technologies. The development of considerably quieter tyres, vehicles and roads is a success story of European R&D, so why isn’t the EU leading the way in terms of use of these world-leading technologies? It’s clearly time to make some noise about noise!

    This news story is taken from the June 2006 edition of T&E Bulletin.