This is everyone's problem

March 29, 2015 | A misperception that often comes up in conversation, articles, and blog posts is the idea that horn-based acoustic alerts are a problem "mostly in urban areas" or an issue that "needs to be addressed especially in urban areas." But this is not a local issue or an urban issue. Nor is it an issue that can be resolved by addressing or regulating human behavior. Nor is it a moral issue. Nor is it a philosophic discussion of libertarian rights or freedom of choice. Nor is it a problem "only for those who are bothered by the noise" because you will never know how many are bothered by the noise, and someone who wasn't bothered today may be bothered by it tomorrow when a new neighbor moves in next door.

Yesterday I traveled from Brooklyn, in New York City, to Scarsdale in lower Westchester County, New York, for a morning appointment in the Vernon Hills Shopping Center. I had always driven to this location before, and this was my first time using public transportation and walking. I took a Metro North train to the northern border of Crestwood and walked through its residential village, which is part of Tuckahoe, and through lower Scarsdale, a walk that took me through four distinctive soundscapes and got me noticing the layers of sound in each one: sounds in the vicinity of the railroad station, sounds in the residential area, sounds along White Plains Road, and sounds in the shopping center parking lot. I am not a trained acoustician, and I'm not qualified to deliver a formal acoustic assessment, but I can listen and process and provide a brief lay person's non-technical summary of what I noticed between 10:00 and 10:30 on a Saturday morning in late March.

Nearer the train station, which is roughly a quarter mile from any traffic, the ambient sound was peaceful, with the addition of intermittent noise from a construction project facing the station on the eastern side of the platform. At intervals, there was the "whoosh" of a passing train, sometimes accompanied by a train horn.

Throughout the residential streets of upper Crestwood, the ambient noise was low and peaceful. The only discernible noise source was occasional horn honks created by remote lock feedback. In each instance the sound occurred at the equivalent of a city block's distance from where I was walking. I heard a half dozen of these honks within ten minutes.

Along White Plains Road, there are four lanes of nearly constant through traffic and traffic lights at intervals. There is no parking, but there are some residences and businesses that feature driveways and parking lots. When cars are stopped at traffic lights, to an untrained ear there is fairly low ambient noise. As I walked along the road for twenty minutes, there was no honking - not a single driver even letting the car ahead know that the light had turned green. The main sound was that of through traffic tire sounds on the road.

In the shopping center parking lot, ambient noise included a peaceful background and intermittent through traffic tire sounds from White Plains Road, and this was punctuated by horn honks created by remote lock feedback. During the time when I was en route to my appointment, I did not hear any traffic honking - warning, scolding, or otherwise.

Most of the sounds I heard that morning were necessary sounds. People who move to homes that border existing railroad tracks and stations are aware that they will hear passing trains and train horns. I'm not saying that such sounds cannot be reduced by acoustical solutions, but that these are expected sounds related to a purpose. This includes the construction sounds, which in theory are ultimately temporary, and road noise such as that which exists along White Plains Road.

The only questionable sound I heard that morning was the remote locking horn honks, because there are acoustical solutions that can eliminate - or that could have prevented - this sound.

Section 18-429 of the Dearborn, Michigan code of ordinances related to horns, warning devices, and theft alarm signals, states that (a) Every motor vehicle when operated upon a highway shall be equipped with a horn in good working order and capable of emitting sound audible under normal conditions from a distance of not less than 200 feet, but no horn or other warning device shall emit an unreasonable loud or harsh sound or a whistle. The driver of a motor vehicle shall, when reasonably necessary to insure safe operation, give audible warning with his horn but shall not otherwise use such horn when upon a highway, (b) No vehicle shall be equipped with nor shall any person use upon a vehicle any siren, whistle or bell, except as otherwise permitted in this section, and (c) It is permissible but not required that any commercial vehicle be equipped with a theft alarm signal device which is arranged that it cannot be used by the driver as an ordinary warning signal.

This regulation - and equivalent regulations in other municipalities, cities, and states in North America - should serve as sufficient evidence that horns are warning devices intended to create neurological and physical responses in human beings, that they affect attention, and that therefore this sound might be inappropriate for something like lock feedback if it might be heard in other settings (such as inside of homes) and scenarios (such as locating a car in a parking lot).

Every automotive product development team should have a dedicated member or members who are aware of such concepts as acoustic ecology, psychoacoustics, the built environment, and environmental health. There is no place at the table for philosophic or political debate. This isn't "a problem in cities" where affected people should "accept it or move to the suburbs." If Scarsdale's soundscape features regular instances of horn-based lock feedback, this cannot be dismissed with that argument. This is everyone's problem, and it always has been.

Whether it is a horn honking alert or an especially loud or grating non-horn alert, any and every sound that is added to any vehicle needs to be considered in the context of its potential to create annoyance or disturbance, without consideration of a design team's personal feelings, or an individual product developer's personal feelings about noise. And at minimum with every new year on existing models, technologies that create intrusive noise should be replaced by available quieter or silent technology.

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