• Traffic noise – a problem neglected for 40 years that must now be confronted

    Editorial by Nina Renshaw, T&E Policy OfficerIt’s strange how sometimes the most obvious problem is the one that is overlooked. One of the tasks the environmental movement has is to get people to understand the urgency of harmful emissions when there isn’t much tangible awareness of either those emissions or the problems they cause. By contrast, noise is a tangible problem, something we hear, especially when it keeps us awake. Yet at EU level, the problem of noise is a tale of severe neglect.

    [mailchimp_signup][/mailchimp_signup]Noise has been on the European agenda for longer than air pollution and greenhouse gases, but for some reason it can never catch the attention of Europe’s decision-makers, despite the fact that it causes misery to be suffered by millions of people across Europe. T&E has been rightly critical of the slowness of action on cutting CO2 emissions from new cars and setting standards to encourage progress on reducing NOx and particles, but at least some progress has been made. With noise, the problem has got worse despite legislation since the early 1970s, and still the Commission considered it acceptable to postpone its four-year-overdue revision of tyre noise standards for another six months to June 2008.

    Perhaps one of the problems with noise is that it is harder to understand in measured terms than pollution or climate change.

    The scale for measuring noise (decibels) needs some explaining; and as it is logarithmic, it’s harder to put a number on a problem and understand the scale of that problem. The World Health Organisation says the harmful effects of noise disturbance can start at 55 decibels, yet heavy rainfall or normal conversation could measure 55 decibels, which makes the point that it’s not just a question of numbers but the type of noise, when it is heard, and how long it goes on for – for example, noise in the night when we expect a degree of quietness can be far more disruptive than the same noise during the day.

    Yet difficulties with quantifying the problems doesn’t mean the problems are any less serious. Around 50 000 people in the EU die prematurely each year from heart attacks caused by noise from traffic. Almost 200 000 Europeans suffer from cardio-vascular disease linked to traffic noise. Traffic is the No 1 source of environmental noise, and road is by far the biggest culprit. The various effects of traffic noise are estimated to cost the EU at least €40 billion per year, and that doesn’t cover all the noise-induced costs to human health.

    To encourage an end to the EU’s habit of turning a deaf ear to traffic noise, T&E is publishing an eight-page brochure called Can You Hear Us? It summarises why noise is such a problem, highlights the EU’s abysmal record in tackling it, and suggests what needs to be done to reduce noise from traffic over the next 2-5 years.

    It may not make the EU speed up the tyre noise revision – that is now set for June, unless there is yet another delay – but hopefully it will help to end years of neglect for an issue that is the curse of the everyday lives of almost half of Europe’s citizens.