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Muted response to a noisy city

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‘Please do not kill your own ears. Stop honking,’ says the unusually well-made display sign of the Chennai City Traffic Police at a T. Nagar bus shelter.

The police have a point, but in the absence of any worthwhile enforcement, mere advice falls on the practically deaf ears of most drivers.

Chennai is today a ‘city of noise.’ Every day, an average of 1,000 new horns is added to the existing cacophony — one per vehicle registered. Already, there are more than three million registered vehicles in the city, and the effect of all those drivers honking their way through congested traffic is painful. MTC buses now ignore the rule against use of air horns within the city. The combined effect has made noise a serious public health issue.    

If you stood on a footpath, say, on Arcot Road or Thyagaraya Road and tried to parse the different sources of noise, you would identify one deafeningly distinct contributor — autorickshaws without proper silencers. Next on the list would be rattling MTC buses, badly-maintained diesel commercial vehicles, and then the rest. Honking, of course, is secular to all classes of drivers, with two-wheeler riders competing for top honours.

Autorickshaws, however, are in a class of their own. Two years ago, this newspaper carried a doctor-specialist’s observation, that autorickshaws with a tampered silencer generate up to 140 decibels (dB [A]) of noise, which is almost double the peak noise level heard on a busy street. There are thousands of these vehicles in the city, but no active enforcement is undertaken to compel them to restore factory-fitted silencers. This, in spite of what the Motor Vehicles Act says.

A lot of people would almost certainly be losing their ability to hear low sound frequencies, because of chronic exposure to such noise. That includes the constabulary of the traffic police.

Evidence on Chennai’s high ambient levels for noise is available from studies conducted by Professor A. Ramachandraiah of IIT Madras and researcher Dr. R. Kalaiselvi. Five years ago, the noise recorded was 14 to 20 decibels above the prescribed limit of 55 dB [A] for residential areas in T. Nagar and Triplicane, while in mixed zones of Kodambakkam, Alwarpet, Nungambakkam and Saidapet, to name a few, it could go 20 to 25 decibels higher than the limit at points. More recent data is now being processed.

Noise control requires action to stop it at the source. The culture of mad honking can perhaps be influenced by campaigns and greater awareness. Road quality can be improved to reduce the rattle of our badly-maintained buses and other diesel vehicles. Architectural solutions exist to blunt street noise reaching houses. But what solution is available to the problem of modified autorickshaw silencers other than to enforce without any tolerance?

The police are not short-staffed or lacking the logistics to end this assault on the ears, often perpetrated by drivers who use it to stress their dominance over the road. When there is an active police effort to check the papers of motorcycle riders and to curb driving under the influence of liquor, why not a mission against noise? There is absolutely no justification to treat autorickshaws as entities above the law.

Every day, around 1,000 new horns are added to the cacophony in the city — one per vehicle registered

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