Facing up to the health impacts of traffic noise
So far the EU has done little to combat noise pollution. But as traffic noise
grows and awareness of its health impacts deepens, Sonja van Renssen finds the pressure to act is rising
Early next year, the World Health Organisation will publish a study expected to put a figure on the significant number of people that die each year in the EU from cardiovascular disease caused by traffic noise. This will be the first time the health impacts of noise pollution have been calculated for the bloc.
Many hope it will spur on policy makers who have long turned a deaf ear to the problem. “Data covering the past 15 years do not show significant improvements in exposure to environmental noise, especially road traffic noise,” admits the European commission on its website.
Transport NGO T&E claims traffic noise levels have not improved in the past three decades. Would this be acceptable for any other form of pollution, it asks, especially when there have been major advances in technology within the industry over the same period? But despite the EU’s apathetic record, there are signs noise pollution is scaling the political agenda.
Henk Wolfert, chairman of the working group on noise at Eurocities, a network of major European cities, says noise is now a top-three priority for local policy makers. EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas is rumoured to be considering a policy push in 2008. Noise may finally be getting a hearing.
Attention to road traffic noise – the main source of environmental exposure – is long overdue. Dutch and Flemish studies have identified it as being worse for health than passive smoking and nitrogen oxide pollution (see figure 1).
The impact noise has on health brings with it a hefty public expense bill. The WHO study is expected to show that 25 per cent more money is spent on health problems resulting from noise than those stemming from air pollution. Studies in Denmark have estimated the health costs of traffic noise at €80-450m a year.
High noise levels produce other costs too, for example lost productivity due to illness and depressed house prices. Studies show noise can affect house prices by up to 12 per cent.
And then there are direct costs in the form of remediation measures such as noise barriers – estimated to cost $1.5m per mile in the US – and housing insulation.
Towards a solution
Research suggests the most effective way to tackle noise pollution is at its source (see figure 2). Dutch researchers calculated that for each decibel of noise reduced, the Netherlands could save ¤100m on remediation solutions.
Cutting noise at its source generates benefits felt throughout the transport network. Yet it is here that action has been lacking. Measures to tackle noise at source are first and foremost the preserve of the EU in the form of noise standards for vehicles and tyres. Road noise arises from three sources: engine noise dominates at low speeds of less than 30 kilometres per hour, tyre-road contact noise at medium speeds, and aerodynamic noise at very high speeds.
Since 1970, car noise has been capped by an EU directive. But despite successive tightening, traffic noise is on the increase: traffic volumes have swelled, regulations have insufficiently stimulated the uptake of technological advances, and there has been a trend towards heavier vehicles with bigger engines.
Today, the vehicle certification test for noise is being revised. Instead of checking noise emissions at full throttle, the new test will simulate actual driving conditions.
Starting this summer, carmakers can still type-approve products using the old test but must also apply the new test and submit the data it delivers. Two years down the line, the data will be used to set new car noise limits.
“Even by just applying the new test method we expect a reduction in noise,” says a commission official, “the new limit values will add to that.” Noise expert Nina Renshaw from T&E says no new vehicles appear to have been type-approved since the data submission requirements entered force in July.
Awareness that noise is a problem remains low in parts of the car industry. When ENDS approached Toyota in Brussels, it said it was the first time anybody had approached the company on the subject and could not give a reasoned response.
Technology and information
Tyre-road contact noise has emerged as the dominant factor in vehicle noise. Tyres are good targets in the battle against noise pollution because their life span is only four years.
Most tyres now meet tyre noise standards introduced by the European commission in 2001. A revision of the tyre directive was due by mid-2004, but no proposal has been put forward. This is despite a feasibility study prepared for the commission last summer by highway research federation FEHRL.
This study proposed a two-stage tightening of tyre noise limits, equivalent to halving the number of cars on the road, by 2012 (see figure 3). Enforcing these standards would not incur huge costs, the authors say, because three quarters of cars in 2004 already met the 2008 proposals and over one third the 2012 proposals.
Even the most cautious calculations suggest the benefits of such new standards would outweigh their costs by 24:1, concluded the report.
The tyre industry disagrees with the feasibility study, saying the proposed noise limits are “unrealistic” and “simply cannot be achieved”.
Manufacturers say data used by the researchers are not representative. They stress the proposals would make it impossible to maintain safety, since wider tyres – which are noisier – are better for braking. The industry favours tightening existing standards, but by less than FEHRL proposes.
Ms Renshaw from T&E says the proposals are feasible as many tyres already meet them and the best far exceed them.
The commission closed a public consultation on the proposals on 18 October. It plans to wrap up noise limits in a more general tyre directive due next year. This will also set rolling resistance limits to help cars meet CO2 emission caps.
There is no evidence that rolling resistance and noise are correlated. While consumers may be prepared to pay more for low rolling resistance because it saves fuel, whether they would pay more for quieter tyres is another matter.
Nevertheless, one further recommendation to come out of the FEHRL report is to label tyres for noise.
“There has to be a combination of a regulatory push [to phase out the worst-performing tyres] and labelling so consumers can push the market towards A-class products,” says Ms Renshaw.
She cites a labelling programme in the Nordic countries as “fairly successful”. Crucially, noise labelling would let member states support quieter tyres with financial incentives. The commission has expressed an interest in this.
Tyre manufacturers do not routinely provide noise information to retailers, nor do they appear keen to change this. A recent attempt to boost quieter tyre sales in the Netherlands reportedly met with limited success.
Many Dutch retailers initially accepted government subsidies to increase sales of quiet tyres, but later all but one withdrew from the voluntary agreement. Industry observers say most of these retailers are owned by tyre manufacturers that generate most of their profit from wider tyres.
Coming full circle
Quieter tyres really come into their own on quieter road surfaces. The commission is considering mandating a classification of road surfaces according to noise levels. This would help integrate noise into spatial planning, for example, by enabling public authorities to build noise requirements into road-laying contracts. An EU-wide standard would also assist the cross-border construction industry.
The tyre sector is urging the commission to introduce road measures at the same time as new tyre standards. An EU source told ENDS that road measures could come “rather quickly” but would not necessarily coincide with the tyre proposals.
Quiet road surfaces can cut road noise by 50-75 per cent compared with standard asphalt. They are more expensive to apply and maintain, until the savings on remediation measures are considered, says Mr Wolfert of Eurocities.
A Dutch programme to tackle noise at source has identified quiet road surfaces as offering the biggest potential to cut traffic noise in the short term.
Under the 2002 environmental noise directive, member states must submit “noise maps” to the commission by the end of this year, with action plans for hotspots to follow by mid-2008. The maps will help identify the busiest areas, where quiet road surfaces are likely to have the most impact. They will also help develop national, regional and local strategies to cut noise, for example through barriers and insulation, traffic management and speed restrictions.
But while much can be achieved in this way, stakeholders say the initiative cannot be left entirely to member states and public money. Tough EU vehicle and tyre standards are vital to driving down noise pollution and ensuring polluters pay.
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