Belgian city puts brakes on deafening drivers by enforcing noise limits

Ghent authorities threaten to impound noisy vehicles, as residents protest about engines and exhausts

Drivers who play booming music, slam on the gas or screech around town have been put on notice by the Belgian city of Ghent: their vehicles could be confiscated for breaching noise limits.

The Flemish city introduced a new regulation last month allowing police to impound vehicles whose drivers were causing excessive noise, either by playing loud music – dubbed boom cars – aggressive driving, or tampering with engines and exhaust pipes to make their vehicles noisier.

City authorities say they were receiving mounting complaints about noisy cars, including a protest in June when 120 people took to the streets to demonstrate against loud engines and exhaust pipes. Bram Van Loo, a legal and security adviser to the Ghent city mayor, identified several noise problems: “It is cars that are very loud because of motors, specific engine systems, specific sound systems or the exhaust pipe. It is also people accelerating, stopping and turning around and driving at immoderate speed.”

Under the new regulation, drivers who breach noise limits will have their vehicle impounded for at least 72 hours and must bear the cost of towing and storage. The law took effect last month and expires at the end of the year when its effectiveness will be evaluated.

Van Loo said it was too early to share results, including how many cars have been seized so far, but said local people were satisfied with the measures.

Noise pollution, which has been linked by the World Health Organization to hearing loss, tinnitus, heart disease, sleep disturbance and general “annoyance”, is a leading urban headache. About 113 million people in the European Economic Area experience noise pollution day and night from road traffic exceeding 55 decibels, the threshold at which noise becomes harmful to human health according to the WHO. Of those, 36 million are exposed to traffic noise exceeding 65 decibels. The WHO recommends people are exposed to no more than 30 decibels of night noise inside bedrooms to ensure a good sleep.

To the north-east of Ghent, the Dutch city of Rotterdam is also hoping to crack down on nuisance drivers. An investigation into noise pollution last summer found that 3% of drivers – about 100 vehicles – were responsible for 100% of excess noise that was measured. When city researchers installed cameras and sound monitors at three points in the city centre, they found 97% of drivers were within noise norms. The 3% who broke noise limits caused a big problem: one vehicle alone was captured exceeding noise limits 15 times in one day.

“We got a lot of comments from inhabitants of Rotterdam: ‘we are being kept awake at night because people are driving like crazy,’” a spokesperson for the city said. Camera footage shared with the Guardian shows beeping horns, screeching wheels, revving engines and sputtering exhausts, the latter often caused by drivers tampering with their cars to make them noisier.

For Dutch cities better known for sedate cycling than aggressive driving, that is a problem. “The cars are a problem because we have so many cyclists. It makes you feel unsafe when someone is revving his engine,” the spokesperson said. “We want people to have a safe feeling on the street.”

While Ghent relies on police judgment to determine a breach of noise rules, Dutch officers have to prove noise is excessive by taking the car to a testing centre. Law-breaking is hard to prove in practice when aggressive driving can be corrected and remote-controlled modifications to exhaust pipes switched off. “It’s very labour intensive to pull people over and then go to the measurement centre, we want to have a tool,” the spokesperson said.

For that reason, city authorities have launched a new phase of the research to link noisy vehicles to number plates – the previous phase identified repeat offenders through the model and colour of car. The city hopes in future this will yield a more effective way to catch and fine noisy drivers.

When the research is complete, Rotterdam plans to enter discussions with the Dutch government and hopes a nationwide system to combat noisy drivers can be introduced. Amsterdam, The Hague and Utrecht are also said to be looking at the idea.

For Ghent and Rotterdam, tackling noise is about making the city a better place to live. “There is increasing demand for less traffic, safer traffic, less noise, lower speeds,” said the Rotterdam spokesperson. “People ask for a city they can live in and that is not a city where you have people driving and revving their engine at night waking everyone up.”


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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