Forty-five minutes. That's the longest anyone has ever been able to bear absolute silence. Orfield Laboratories in South Minneapolis boasts the world's quietest room that absorbs 99.99% of sounds. But people find the lack of ambient sounds so disturbing they quickly clamour to get out. Some even suffer from claustrophobia, panic attacks or aural hallucinations.
Still, an upsetting silence is not a problem that most people encounter - rather the contrary. Noise is one of the scourges of modern life and one of the main causes is traffic noise. Research by the European Environmental Agency shows that half of the people living in urban areas suffer from unbearable traffic noise. Being constantly exposed to it can prove physically draining, disrupt organs' proper functioning and lead to the development of cardiovascular and other diseases.
On 6 February the European Parliament will vote on plans to reduce motor vehicle noise by setting lower limits for cars and lorries for the first time since 1996. Under the Commission plans the limits would first apply to new vehicles. The restrictions would be lowered in two steps, namely two and five years after the new rules come into force. For conventional cars the limit would be reduced from 72 decibels to 70 and finally 68, for heavy trucks it would be lowered from 81 to 80 and then 78.
The Commission proposal has already been welcomed by Parliament's environment committee, which is in charge of producing a recommendation to MEPs. But although committee members like the draft legislation, they want a more pragmatic approach, and suggest the car industry should have to meet the new rules in one fell swoop six years after the new rules come into force.
They also want a labelling scheme to inform people about the noise level of the vehicle they are about to buy. Similar labelling schemes already exist for fuel consumption, tyre noise and CO2 emissions.
Ironically, as part of the same plans, some vehicles could be made noisier. Electric cars might be good for the environment but as the engines are very quiet, there is a risk that people won't hear them coming. That is why the Commission wants to set standards to make electric vehicles audible to pedestrians. However, it will be up to companies to decide if they want to equip their vehicles with a sound system to warn pedestrians of their approach.
Disturbing silence versus deafening noise - on 6 February it will be up to MEPs to decide on the right volume.
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