A decibel detox would benefit everyone

Photo credit: Wavy_ revolution

by Jeanine Botta, MPH, Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

In an Autoevolution article, author Florin Amariel describes the evolution of the car horn, combining a comical recounting of early efforts with a strong warning of the health impacts of noise exposure as he details horn misuse in worldwide markets.

The horn is a standard vehicle safety device, but in the early 20th century, horns were optional. They were also challenging to use, involving having to squeeze a bulb. By 1914, a standard design emerged, but it would take years before the electromechanical horn was reliable enough so that drivers could give up alternating use of the rubber bulb horn.

In a departure from most auto reporting, Amariel notes several health impacts of noise and describes non-emergency horn use as harmful to health. He also puts horn use in context with other highly stressful aspects of driving.

Perhaps wanting to end the article on a hopeful note, Amariel suggests that a luxury car’s silent interior could offer respite, mitigating harms and stresses of vehicle noise. He mentions that General Motors has integrated a noise canceling system into its cabin noise reduction oeuvre.

If horn use were restricted to traffic scenarios, this ending might work, especially in a European setting where most horn use occurs in traffic. In North America — in spite of municipal noise ordinances prohibiting vehicle horn use “while not in motion” — horn sounds are used in scenarios unrelated to traffic. Cars in the North American market feature horn sounds to indicate situations such as door locking, remote start, stages of battery charging, stages of tire pressure monitoring, a key left in a car, and other situations when a vehicle is not in motion.

In the North American market, brands that pride themselves on quiet cabins and quiet EV drives feature multiple non-emergency alerts that use horn sounds. Regulatory agencies, trade associations, and consumer protection agencies give such noise a pass.

While working on the Silence the Horns project, I organized a letter-writing campaign appealing to Consumer Reports. In response, the magazine featured a survey on Facebook and published the results in the magazine and online, but passed on advocating for quieter technology. This was more responsive than the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the  Environmental Protection Agency, or SAE International, which would not engage on the matter at all.

In a more recent article, Consumer Reports praised the feature that uses a horn honk to indicate correct tire pressure rather than suggest that a visual cue would work just as well.

“A few cars will even help guide you through inflation, honking the horn once your tires have reached their correct pressure, so you can leave your tire pressure gauge in the glove box…the ability to see the pressure per tire and for the car to let you know when a tire is inflated to the correct pressure is a nice convenience.”

Whether it’s the horn of an angry driver, or a convenience technology indicating a locked car, or tire pressure, or remote start, I agree with Amariel: a decibel detox would benefit everyone!

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