Final Inspection

No Worries, Europeans, EC’s Got Your Back – and Ears

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Once enacted, the region's new noise-reduction regulation states, “The reduction of the number of highly annoyed people will be 25%.” I've met more than a few highly annoyed people in Europe, many of them waiting tables in Paris, and traffic noise had nothing to do with it.

“My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city…the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant.”_George Gershwin, composer, An American in Paris

Not so fast, mon ami. The European Commission is listening.

In its latest spasm of nanny-state compulsiveness, the European Parliament has rubber-stamped EC-dictated noise-reduction rules for passenger cars, light-commercial vehicles, buses, light trucks, coaches and medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

The “Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Sound Level of Motor Vehicles” runs 97, count ’em, 97 pages. Boiling it down to its essentials, the regulation says noise from cars, vans, buses and coaches with combustion engines must be decreased 4 decibels (dB), from 72 dB to 68 dB, during a phase-in period from 2016 to 2026.

You know the passages in An American in Paris that evoke Gershwin’s “street noises?” His original arrangement had the real thing: four honking horns from Paris taxis.

Whether these horns would bring the EC hush hammer down on Gershwin’s symphonic poem today likely would depend on the volume at which it was played or performed.

Numerous scientific and commercial sources’ measurements of decibel levels in terms of real-world sound vary to the point of near-arbitrariness. Many say the EC’s target of 68 dB approximates “normal conversation” (excluding, presumably, impassioned arguments at French, Italian or Greek coffee houses and sidewalk cafes), while a few estimate 72 dB is cranked out by a vacuum cleaner 3 ft. (0.9 m) away from the listener.

Lowering traffic noise under EC regulators’ benevolence, the proposal declares, “will result in a reduction of the noise impact of about 3 dB for free-flowing traffic and up to 4 dB for intermittent traffic. The reduction of the number of highly annoyed people will be 25%.” (emphasis mine.)

I’ve met more than a few highly annoyed people in Europe, many of them waiting tables in Paris. Traffic noise had nothing to do with it. (Incidentally, squawking, shrill motorbikes and motor scooters are not mentioned anywhere in the EC regulation.)

The EC’s rationale for the crackdown largely is based on research by the World Health Organization, which concluded in 2011 that traffic noise was responsible for the loss of at least 1 million “disability-adjusted life years” annually in the European Union’s western countries, a figure inexplicably bumped up that same year to 1.6 million for the entire EU.

Detailing its methodology a few years earlier, the WHO noted: “For annoyance by traffic noise the reference group are adults without traffic-noise-induced annoyance, for annoyance by neighborhood the reference group are adults without neighborhood-noise-induced annoyance.”

If anybody should be annoyed, it’s the hapless European Union automakers who have to jump through 97 pages’ worth of hoops in search of the treasured Certificate of Compliance. How much re-engineering will have to be done to make their cars acceptably quiet is anybody’s guess.

“Research and development must be done to provide new technologies and materials for efficient solutions so that there is no additional financial burden for users,” is the cautious response of Jacob Bangsgaard, a European regional official with the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile.

Ivan Hodac, the former secretary-general of ACEA, the European automobile manufacturers group, was more blunt, saying meeting the EC’s noise limits would add manufacturing costs of €1,500 to €3,000 ($1,143 to $2,288) per truck and €300 ($228) to €600 ($228 to $457) per car.

“Today, basically no car manufacturer is making money in Europe,” Hodac told WardsAuto during the depths of the European recession in April 2012. “And the regulatory pressure is one of the main reasons.”

The degree of micromanagement in the test specs alone is astonishing, encompassing everything from the placement of the microphone along the test track, weather conditions during testing (“It must be ensured that the results are not affected by gusts of wind”) to factoring in the weight of the test driver (“‘mass of the driver’ means a mass rated at 75 kg [165 lbs.] located at the driver’s seating reference”).

Interestingly, the EC regulations make no mention of an appeals process. Maybe that’s because they also make no mention of penalties for noncompliance. Without wading back into the bureaucratic morass of EC legislation, I’m guessing that if a car doesn’t have a Certificate of Compliance, it can’t be sold outside the country in which it was built.

Oh, and don’t think electric and hybrid-electric cars are silently slipping past the EC’s noise police. The regulation doesn’t just require that those vehicles be equipped with an alarm to alert pedestrians and “vulnerable road users.”

Annex IX, Chapter A, Section 4, Subsection (a), Subsubsections (i-ii) deem as unacceptable  “Siren, horn, chime, bell and emergency vehicle sounds (…and) alarm sounds e.g. fire, theft, smoke alarms.”

The EC eases up in Subsubsection (iv), listing “Melodious sounds, animal and insect sounds” under sounds that merely “should be avoided.” Hear that, Volkswagen? If you decide to do an electric or hybrid Beetle, be careful about getting cute and making its warning sound like a beetle.

So there you have it: A Europe with quieter cars, vans, buses and trucks, all the better to hear jetliners overhead, subways below and motorbikes and people – hopefully less annoyed – at street level.

Composer and pianist Mario Braggiotti recalled a 1928 visit with Gershwin in Paris: “Beside his Steinway was a group of bridge tables covered with all sizes and makes of French taxi horns … ‘I’m looking for the right horn pitch for the street scene of a ballet I’m writing. Calling it An American in Paris. Lots of fun.’”

Fun? If Gershwin were alive today, Europe's uber-bureaucracy would be giving him an earful.

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