Will electric vehicles reduce city traffic noise?

Photo credit: G.M. Briggs

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Some people put great hope in technology to solve problems of modern living. So it is with those who think that electric vehicles, whether trucks or other vehicles, will do the trick. I’m in favor of electric and hybrid vehicles for their beneficial effects in reducing the use of petroleum products and reducing gaseous and particulate emissions. Anything reducing diesel use will have a dramatic benefit in reducing particulate matter. So news that Ryder, “one of the nation’s largest medium-duty truck fleet management companies, will buy trucks from Chanje [an electric truck manufacturer], then lease and service them through its extensive network,” is welcome. But will electric vehicles reduce city traffic noise? I think not.

First, it will take years if not decades for electric vehicles to become more common. Second, and perhaps more importantly, power train noise is a small component of road traffic noise in most situations. I suppose a diesel hybrid vehicle idling on electric will be quieter than the same vehicle powered solely by a diesel engine, but adequate insulation of the engine compartment and an effective muffler system would do the trick just as well.

And of course, electric vehicles won’t do anything about horns, horn-based alerts, or sirens.

The technologies to reduce or control noise have been known for decades. Acoustics pioneer Leo Beranek published his landmark book, “Noise Reduction,” in 1960 and the successor, “Noise and Vibration Control,” in 1971. As noise pioneer Arline Bronzaft, PhD, has written, what is lacking is not the way but the political will.

Road traffic noise is a health and public health hazard, causing non-auditory health impacts like hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and death. The European literature makes this very clear. There is no reason to think that Americans, largely of European descent and those from elsewhere, have different physiological responses to noise exposure.

If enough people loudly demand that their elected officials pass and enforce laws to make vehicles and streets quieter, our cities and their streets will become quieter. Electric vehicles may or may not play a small role in this, but they are largely irrelevant.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

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