Peace and Quiet

Is background music a human rights violation?

Guildford Arms, a Quiet Scotland approved pub | Photo credit: alljengi licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It is according to Quiet Scotland, writes Tony Diver, The HeraldQuiet Scotland describes itself as “an informal group of Scottish residents who campaign for freedom from unwanted background music in cafés, restaurants, bars, shops, GPs’ surgeries, hospital waiting rooms, and other public places.” Diver tells us that Quiet Scotland began in 2012 and has around 200 members. It’s goal is simple–to persuade restaurants and retail establishments to shut off the background music.

To encourage businesses, and help those who just want to eat and shop in a quiet space, the group maintains a list of music-free places in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland’s biggest cities. The group is also asking the general public to help out, by offering feedback cards that allow customers to rate spaces based on how loud they are.

As Anne Wellman, the group’s treasurer explained, they started out as a branch of Pipedown, an English organization. But since piped music has a different meaning in Scotland, they soon changed the name to Quiet Scotland “because everybody who joined intensely dislikes background music played in public places.” Says Wellman, “[t]hink of the types of music you don’t like, and then have that blasted at you when you’re trying to eat. Because that’s mostly the case.”

Wellman adds that loud background music is not just annoying. Rather, for people who have a medical condition like tinnitus, autism, or hearing loss, background music is actively distressing. And for them, she suggests, “disability legislation designed to protect those with medical conditions from discrimination could be applied to the loudness of music in public places.”

While some may scoff, Wellman compares Quiet Scotland’s actions to anti-smoking campaigns in the past. “There was a point at which that was laughed at, and then it reached a tipping point when people actually started to agree,” she said.

 

 

Consumer Electronics Show hosted electric motorcycles and scooters

Photo credit: Yamaha Tritown by Yamaha

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

For some of us, the annual Consumer Electronics Show is a huge, eagerly awaited cultural moment. This year’s installment took place in Las Vegas, Nevada and ended on January 10.

Why get excited about an electronics show? Well, at CES, you can see, touch and even demo the results of what America’s research and development crews have been feverishly working on. The products at CES are all gussied up and ready to rock and roll. And what a scene it is! It can only happen in Las Vegas: 185,000 people, 4,000 companies showing off their wares, and thousands of people up on stage to speak. This is not your average trade show.

This year, CES show-cased something that really excited us: quiet, urban, electric transport of the one-wheel and two-wheel variety. I mean motorcycles, unicycles, scooters, you name it. Take a look at some of the examples shown in the link above.

The very idea that urban transport can be quiet and unobtrusive—while whisking users to their various destinations—is truly exciting. No fumes, no noise, just people whizzing around (and yes, occasionally banging into one another).

In the meantime, you can actually buy now, an electric unicycle or motorcycle or Segway and be on your way. What are you waiting for?

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, American National Standards Institute Committee S12, Workgroup 44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group—a partner of the American Hospital Association. He is the lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), a contributor to the National Academy of Engineering report “Technology for a Quieter America,” and to the US-GSA guidance “Sound Matters”, and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He recently retired from the board of directors of the American Tinnitus Association. A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

The sound of winter

Photo credit: Valdemaras D. from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This delightful essay by Jennifer Finney Boylan in the New York Times discusses the differences between winter in Maine and winter in New York City.

Boylan writes that when she ventures out “on a subzero morning in Maine, it’s the silence that strikes me first.” No doubt it is a sharp contrast with the sound of the city in winter. In fact, Boylan adds, “[t]he most dramatic sound up north is the one that I almost never hear in New York City: the sound of nothing at all.”

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

The ugly truth about delivery drones

Photo credit: Sam Churchill licensed under CC BY 2.0

We have written about why we think wide scale use of delivery drones will not happen here, here, here, and here.  And now we have to repeat ourselves, as we share a recent report by Mariella Moon, Engadget, about how Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, can’t unleash its delivery drones onto the world until it remedies “one of the biggest complaints about it first.” The complaint, of course, is that the drones are noisy.  Moon writes that people who live “directly under the drones’ path in rural Australia where they’re current being tested described the sound they make as ‘chainsaw gone ballistic.'”

Really? Surely a small drone can’t be that horrible? Except it’s not just one drone, it’s a fleet of drones, and yes, it is horrible. Moon writes:

Apparently, the machines create so much noise that people don’t even use their yards anymore. In addition, dog owners are avoiding areas where they pass, because the drones make their dogs nervous. Not to mention, the noise could trigger PTSD symptoms in military veterans.

So Wing is going to try to make a quieter drone. In the meantime, it is slowing down the drones and trying to vary the flight paths so that they don’t continue to enrage the poor souls who live near their testing facility. Fortunately for the rest of us, Moon notes that “it’s going to take a while” before Wing can design that mythical quiet drone.

Meanwhile we wonder what compelling need is being served by drone delivery. Sure, being able to deliver life saving medicine to a remote location would be fabulous, but let’s be realistic, most drones are going to deliver consumer goods or fast food and the drones are meant to reduce human labor costs and encourage impulse buying. That is, there is no compelling need. It’s all just a lot of noise.

 

The sound of silence

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Penelope Green, The New York Times, writes about using a sound machine to mask nighttime noise for better sleep. In her article she cites a definition of noise that I like and will probably use it again. “Noise,” writes Green, “is defined as unwanted sounds that could have negative psychological and physiological effects.

Green discusses using white noise to mask unwanted sounds that might disrupt sleep. But while that might help with sleep, it’s not clear that white noise is without health consequences itself.

Humans and our primate and vertebrate ancestors evolved in quiet. As Green notes, the perception of sound is a warning mechanism. It allowed us to detect predators or a hungry baby.

I have measured nighttime noise levels near 30 A-weighted decibels (dBA) in remote areas of Wales and Sri Lanka. (A-weighting adjusts measured sound for the frequencies heard in human speech.) That’s at the low end of the noise range from 30-35 dBA where sounds begin to disrupt sleep.

Sadly, it’s impossible to avoid nighttime noise in urban settings, but, as mentioned in the article, even natural sounds from frogs and other animals in rural settings can disturb the listener. Which is unfortunate, because achieving quiet to allow sleep, rather than relying on sound masking devices or apps, is probably better for our health.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Help for those bothered by airplane noise

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article in the Los Angeles Times describes a new tool, the Airnoise button, developed to help people report airplane noise. Airplane noise has always been a problem, but airplane noise has been exacerbated by the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen program, which uses satellite navigation to guide airplanes on more precise approach paths to their destinations. NextGen increases fuel efficiency and allows closer spacing of planes, but it also concentrates airplane noise over smaller areas. The complaints about the NextGen noise problem has been covered in these pages and in many newspaper reports from around the country.

Due to a phenomenon called “regulatory capture,” the FAA appears more concerned about the profits of the airplane manufacturers, airline companies, and airports than about the health and well-being of the Americans under the flight paths. And the FAA believes airplane noise is “just a nuisance,” even though it has been shown to be a risk factor for hypertension, heart attack, stroke, and death.

One of the things government officials say when confronted about a problem is that “nobody ever complained.” But people are complaining about airplane noise, so the FAA’s response, as noted in the Los Angeles Times article, has been to attribute a large number of complaints to a handful of people. And the FAA might have a point, but the agency fails to acknowledge that their cumbersome procedures make it difficult for people to complain. After all, most people have more important things to do in their busy lives than to hunt down the right online form and file a complaint every time a plane flies over their house.

But the FAA may have to come up with a different excuse soon, as Airnoise makes it simple and easy to file airplane noise complaints–just one simple click of the Airnoise proprietary button, or a click on the Airnoise smartphone app, and your complaint is on its way.

I hope all affected by aircraft noise will use Airnoise to file complaints, so that the FAA and congressional committees that govern and fund them can no longer pretend that only a handful of people are concerned about aviation noise.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Do we have a right to live in a quiet community?

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Do people have a right to live in a quiet community? Trevor Hancock, of the Times Colonist, thinks so, and so do I.

Hancock’s article discusses community noise, and highlights The Quiet Coalition’s Antonella Radicchi, PhD, who spoke in November 2018 at the Acoustical Society of America’s meeting in Victoria, BC, Canada, about her Hush City app.

In the U.S., the Noise Control Act of 1972 “establishes a national policy to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health and welfare.”

The Environmental Protection Agency was tasked by Congress with the responsibility to make this happen. Unfortunately, in the Reagan era Congress defunded EPA’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control, and the country has gotten much noisier since then.

But it is now clearly known that noise is a health and public health hazard, causing hearing loss and other auditory disorders and non-auditory disorders including heart disease, stroke, and death.

We hope this knowledge will empower the public to demand quiet, just as the knowledge that secondhand smoke was a health hazard empowered the public to demand smoke free spaces.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Embracing stillness

NBC Left Field interviews Steve Orfield, owner/operator of an anechoic chamber that the Guinness Book of World Records once named as “the quietest place on earth.”  Orfield talks about the importance of silence, noting that “the more perceptual stimulus you have, the less you are able to think clearly.” In the end, Orfield observes that we spend most of our energy trying to entertain ourselves until we go to bed, and concludes “if you look at all the things we spend money on and all the things we think we need, what’s the cost of peace?”

It’s a fascinating interview and well worth your time:

Yes. The answer is yes.

The battleground.

And the question is: Are noise-filled carriages bad for your health? Hannah Jane Parkinson, The Guardian, is righteously appalled about a bone-headed idea floated by UK railway company South Western Railways which is considering getting rid of quiet carriages.  For some of us–raises hand as high as one can–quiet cars on Amtrak and state-run transit are the one of the few saving graces of an increasingly overused, underfunded public transit system here in the U.S. So reading that South Western Railways may kill quiet carriages not due to lack of interest but because “[t]he rise of mobile phones, loud music players and a general lack of etiquette mean that quiet zones are now virtually unenforceable,” is an absolute outrage.

Parkinson writes that some people think that quietness is overrated [Ed: monsters!] and says that “[p]sychotherapist and writer Philippa Perry suggests that we are becoming frightened of quietness, possibly as a result of technology.” But Parkinson sides with those of us who just want a moment that isn’t filled with layers of unavoidable sound, even suggesting prison sentences for the sound-loving louts who would rob the rest of us of just a few seconds of peace:

Seven years. That’s the minimum prison sentence that should apply to people on public transport who listen to music through their phone speakers (also known as “sodcasting”) – with two years for banal phone conversations that never end.

We agree, and would suggest similar sentencing guidelines for people wearing headphones who sing along, badly, to whatever they are listening to and those who set their phone volume to 11 and engage the tapping sound on their phone keyboards.

In the end, though, we can’t and shouldn’t avoid all sound, but the artificial sounds imposed on us by marketing miscreants and social louts can be controlled. Instead of getting rid of quiet cars on trains, why not make them all quiet except for one loud car for the uncaring and boorish? Tired of trying to eat a meal in peace only to have some miscreant spend his or her entire meal shouting into their smart phone? Interpose yourself into the conversation by offering unsolicited advice or agreeing with the unseen person on the other end. And refuse to give a dime of encouragement to the amateur “entertainers” who leap onto your subway car just as the doors close, armed with a boom box or bongos–yes, really–with the intent of destroying your sanity for the next three minutes.

People have begun to accept that noise is normal and that wanting quiet is some quirky affectation. But noise isn’t normal and should not be the default. We need to push back against the bad behavior of the noise makers and reclaim our public spaces.  So demand more quiet cars. Ask someone to stop shouting into their phone.  And know you are not alone.

Motorcycle noise is not a first amendment right

Photo credit: Pulicciano licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This story by NPR discusses what will be the last Rolling Thunder motorcycle ride in the nation’s capital. The Rolling Thunder motorcycle ride first took place in 1988, an excuse to ride loud motorcycles through Washington, D.C. to honor veterans and troops killed in action, and to put pressure on the government to do more to find those still missing. The organizers of the Rolling Thunder ride will be organizing their last event in Washington D.C. this coming Memorial Day, 2019. After that, they will celebrate local and regional motorcycle rides but won’t have an organized ride in D.C. because “the event had become too costly and that federal agencies were making it overly difficult to organize.”

A Pentagon spokesperson said, “[t]he department supports the peaceful, lawful exercise of American citizens’ First Amendment rights, and remains focused on ensuring the safety and security of the demonstrators and the Pentagon Reservation. The department is prepared to support the 2019 Rolling Thunder ride, as we have for the last 31 years.”

Some might interpret this statement to mean that the Pentagon supports citizens riding noisy motorcycles as an exercise of their free speech. I don’t think this is what those who wrote and passed the First Amendment meant. And I don’t think this is what the Pentagon means, either.

I’m a doctor, not a constitutional lawyer, but I can read the Constitution as well as anyone else. The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Honoring veterans and pressuring the government to find those still missing action, and complaining about restrictions on a large, noisy motorcycle event are examples of protected free speech. Motorcycle noise is not.

States clearly have a legal right to regulate motorcycle noise, and according to the American Automobile Association, many do, even if state and local police agencies are reluctant to enforce these laws.

And there’s a federal law as well, namely transportation noise emission regulations. The law is very detailed, with different decibel levels depending on the engine size and purpose of the motorcycle (street use or off-road use) but 80 decibels is a common limit. Many if not most motorcycles exceed this limit.

Motorcycle riders may be a powerful constituency, but they are a minority. Their right to make noise stops at our ears.

If enough citizens exercise our First Amendment rights to complain to elected officials and police authorities, the laws will be enforced and we will have a quieter world.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.