Friday, May 8, 2009

Down with Decibels

We are fortunate enough to live in a very quiet village.

Of course it is not all fortune; we chose to live in what seemed to be a very quiet village & good fortune has kept it that way, so far.
Nearly always, the loudest noise is birdsong, against a background of insect buzzing, and I can take a lot of that.
Sometimes you imagine you could hear the butterflies.

Actually, the loudest noise is the church clock, which is 100 meters away & chimes every 15 minutes, day & night.
We like it, and missed it on the rare occasions it has been out of action, but some guests have found it difficult to sleep with.
We have ear plugs for extreme cases.
Surprisingly for a tiny rural village, the 1784 church's clock is radio-controlled from Frankfurt, so when it wakes you up at 4 a.m. you know it is exactly 04.00 hrs & not a second later.

Then, every spring, another few resident or visiting idiots reach the age when they have to take all the stuffing out of their mo-ped's silencer and go paarp-paarp-paarping through the village.
Oh, how I wish for a very big fly-swat, Monty-Python style…
There are enough existing laws to prevent them, and enough Gendarmes too, and the proof couldn't be easier, but I have never seen a single case of a noisy bike being crushed, confiscated, impounded or even stopped & asked politely to get back to normal.

Less extreme, but far more frequent, are the lawn mowers, strimmers, chainsaws & leaf-blowers.
Here, I have to plead guilty, or at least a bit guilty.
I never had a chainsaw & consistently refuse my kind neighbour's offers to lend me his, preferring to saw calmly by hand, even though it takes 50 times longer.
I never had a leaf-blower & seriously think they should simply be outlawed as a public nuisance.
I have owned 3 strimmers, being initially impressed by their ingenuity, but have gone back to shears as the gentle snip-snip is so much better for my nerves & blood pressure than the scream of the strimmer.

But I am guilty on mowers.
In France, we are not talking about the typical British-garden hand-pushed cylinder-mower with its delicious swish-swish-swish soundtrack, part of the national heritage of well-oiled-machinery noises, along with treadle sewing machines & steam engines.
No, we mean 4-stroke (or worse, stinking 2-stroke) engine-powered high-speed-rotary-bladed mowers.
Why on earth are they allowed to be so noisy?

When I bought a ride-on mower 10 years ago, I got about the quietest on offer, but it was still rated at 100dB.
That is ridiculously noisy.

Last year, my 25-year-old Qualcast "small" mower, which I need for the bits the ride-on can't reach, finally expired.
I resolved to get the quietest-possible replacement.
Excluding electric, on practicality & safety grounds, and excluding sheep, on my-incompetence grounds.
As far as I could see, from extensive searching on internet & in garden shops, the quietest motor mower available was the Honda Izy 41cm.
Rated at 94dB.
But the ones I found in shops had 96dB labels on.
Eventually I found that 94 dB was the 2008 model & 96dB was pre-2008.
Nobody had the new one yet & even the official Honda agent was not prepared to order one until he had shifted his stocks of the old one.
Nobody could understand why I was bothered about 94dB when I could have 96dB now & 50€ cheaper.
After all, "who can tell the difference between 94 & 96 of anything?"
No shop or website included noise levels in the publicity arguments.
Even Consumer Organisations didn't count noise level as an important decision factor.
In the end, I managed to order a 94dB version from my local Renault dealer & I am very pleased with it.
It is quieter than many electric tools.

So why is it that there is a general belief that loud noises are a nuisance & unhealthy, yet there seems to be little or no pressure or incentive to make less noise?
If I go to buy a fridge or a light bulb, I can't avoid the big coloured signs showing me they are A, B, C, D, E, F or G for power efficiency.
But if I want to buy a mower, or an electric drill, or a kitchen blender, I need to look for the small print (if I am lucky) to find any information on noise levels, then I need to know that the sound-level scale used is logarithmic & that an insignificant-looking difference of 3dB represents a very significant doubling of sound intensity.

Until the logarithmic decibel scale is replaced by something simpler, like a big, obvious, coloured A-to-G label suitably tailored to each type of appliance & graduated with a rapid reaction to differences in the plausible range, then I don't think there is any hope of getting the general public to take an interest in the noisiness of its tools, at the purchasing stage.
Even then, faced with a choice between Euros & decibels, many people will, understandably, go for Euros.
If the noise only affected the user, that might be reasonable.
The problem is that the user saves Euros but the neighbours get the decibels.

For me, this is clearly an area where government intervention is justified.
The French Government has recently shown that globally beneficial distortions of the car market (in that case with a significant reduction in CO2 output) can easily be induced by smart differential taxation.
As far as I can see, nobody is complaining.
No doubt a global reduction in noise nuisance could quite quickly be achieved by differential taxation on noise levels, starting with the big-hitters like lawn mowers.
Such a move would encourage the public to choose quieter mowers immediately, and encourage manufacturers to bother to reduce noise levels rapidly.
Probably with little or no net cost.

Once it works for lawn mowers, we should try it on barking dogs.

Parting thot: "Empty vessels make the most noise." - proverb

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