Let’s just be clear about one thing: road traffic noise isn’t just an annoyance. This is a problem causing about 50 000 premature deaths every year. If they were caused by food poisoning or medical negligence, there would be an outcry. But because the cause is background noise from roads, it’s not immediately obvious who is to blame or how the problem can be solved.
However there is an easy way of making a considerable difference very quickly: better tyres.
Almost half the EU’s population, about 210 million people or 44%, is exposed to levels of traffic noise judged to be dangerous to health by the World Health Organisation (55dB or more). It’s important to note that people’s health may be suffering from traffic noise without them even realising it, as comparatively few Europeans (57 million) say they are annoyed by road noise. This is similar to the number of people (54 million) who are exposed to noise levels 10 times higher than the WHO’s threshold for the onset of health problems (65dB).
The risk is dramatically higher the louder the noise, especially over 70 decibels.
It’s sometimes difficult to understand the noise issue because the relationship between decibels and noise levels isn’t linear. A 3-decibel reduction has the same noise effect as cutting traffic by half. After the European Parliament’s industry committee vote last week, MEPs said they were ‘only’ weakening the limit values by 1-2 decibels; it sounds minimal, but it would make a big difference in bringing millions of people below the threshold that’s dangerous to health.
A recent study for the city of London shows that if no-one was exposed to traffic noise louder than 70 decibels, the number of people suffering heart disease due to road noise would fall by 55% along busy roads, and by a third for the city as a whole.
So why the reluctance to take action on tyres, which is the primary cause of road traffic noise? Could it be the influence of the tyre industry? It looks like Pirelli has called in some favours from Italian policy-makers.
Or could it be that those affected are at the bottom of the social scale? Those likely to suffer most from traffic noise are people who cannot afford the price of housing in quieter areas, or to install sound insulation, plus vulnerable groups such as the elderly, people who are already ill, and children (schools are often by busy main roads).
Whatever the reason, it is a scandal that nothing meaningful has happened yet, especially now we know the cost that failure to act has on our health and welfare. That’s why MEPs on the internal market committee should, when they vote on this dossier on 2 December, seize the initiative to end years of shameful inactivity and reaffirm the original proposals.