Driving Down Road Noise

  • Heavy traffic on a Houston freeway. (Photo by Ed Edahl, courtesy of FEMA)

Whizzing tires, whining engines and booming car
stereos are just about everywhere. Those sounds are a
form of pollution, and can affect the way we feel. Kyle
Norris has this story:


Whizzing tires, whining engines and booming car
stereos are just about everywhere. Those sounds are a
form of pollution, and can affect the way we feel. Kyle
Norris has this story:

The engineers at Chrysler are hard-core about noise.

Right now they’re inside a high-tech studio.
And there’s a car on rollers.
The engineers are trying to pinpoint the noises that a driver would hear.

Inside the cabin it’s pretty quiet (quiet sound inside cabin).
But outside, well… Engineer Taner Onsay explains.

(yelling over whirr of tires) “This is how it sounds outside. See, I cannot
communicate with you, with this sound. Inside this would be totally unacceptable.”

Cars that are quiet are the inside are a huge selling point in the auto biz.
But what about the sounds that a vehicle puts into the world?

Like road noise.
What are people doing about that?

Not a whole lot.

Story goes, there used to be a federal office that dealt with noise.
It was the EPA’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control.

But President Reagan shut that baby down in 1982.
Basically to save on cash.
The idea was that state and local governments could deal with noise.

The noise office did a lot of good things just to help protect our ears.
It had noise standards and regulations – on the books.
And the office was just a really good resource for state and local organizations, and also for people who were just having problems with road noise.

But since it’s been gone…

“Well a lot of the local noise-control programs at the city and county level just dried up
and blew away. It’s hurt the noise program tremendously throughout country.”

That’s Bill Bowlby.
He’s president of an engineering company that consults about road noise.
He’s also worked for state departments of transportation and for the Federal Highway

He says that state departments of transportation are concerned about road noise.
And that they’re thinking about things like quieter tires and quieter pavements.
And about not building residential areas near highways.

But states are only required to do so much about road noise.

For example, when states are widening or building highways and using federal money –
which they almost always are – they’re required to study road noise and obey certain

But when it comes to road noise coming from an existing highway, it’s totally voluntary if
a state wants to deal with it.

So you get a range of how different states deal with it, which they call retrofitting.

Bill Bowlby that says although some states take the issue very seriously…

“…other states have had little interest in idea of retrofits usually because they’re looking
to spend their limited amount of money on highway related projects.”

And the kicker about road noise is that it can seriously, seriously affect people.
For people who live near noisy roads, it can make their lives miserable.
Plus it can make it hard to concentrate as a driver.
And to hear the vehicles around you, like motorcycles and other sounds, like sirens.

Dennis Weidemann is a guy who’s thought a lot about all this.
He wrote his thesis about road-noise.

He says that road noise isn’t dramatic or flashy.
So it doesn’t grab our attention.
And road noise does not have a villain, so we’re all responsible.

Weidemann says it can seem hopeless to people.

“They know they don’t like it but they don’t know how it effects them. And if you don’t
know that, you just get the impression, well, it just bothers me, I’m weird, I’ll let it go.”

Noise experts say we need to re-open the federal noise office.
Or something like it.
And we’ve got to figure-out how to make things quieter.

This is starting to become a hot topic in the pavement industry, where different
businesses are trying to one-up their competitors by making the quietest pavement.

But for car companies there’s really no incentive to make cars that are quieter on the outside.
And right now there are no regulations of how quiet a car needs to be when it comes off
the assembly line.

Although that’s not the case in Europe,
where vehicle noise regulations are much more strict.
And where the whole subject of road noise is taken a lot more seriously.

For The Environment Report, I’m Kyle Norris.

Related Links

Noise Pollution Dampens the Sounds of Nature

A man who listens to the sounds of nature for a living…says we’re
missing a lot. He thinks because of noise pollution and because we’re
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much of the rest of the living world. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lester Graham reports: