What’s the problem?

More than 200 million European citizens (one in three) are regularly exposed to traffic noise levels that put their health at risk. One in five are negatively impacted by vehicle noise at night. Although often forgotten by policymakers, traffic noise is the most harmful environmental problem after air pollution in the European Union. According to the latest report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), noise can cause hearing damage, cardiovascular disease, learning impairment in children and sleep disturbance.

A report carried out for Transport & Environment (T&E) in 2008 has linked noise pollution to 50,000 fatal heart attacks every year and 5% of strokes in Europe. In 2011, twenty prominent European noise experts wrote to the European Commission warning about the negative impact of vehicle noise on the quality of life of hundreds of millions of Europeans if no serious action is taken.

Why does this matter?

A 2012 report commissioned by Transport & Environment T&E to three Dutch consultancies has shown that tighter vehicle noise standards would have benefits that outweigh the costs by a factor of more than 30 to one.

Furthermore, some €87 billion could be saved in health-related expenditures every year in the EU, if more stringent legislation on vehicle noise was implemented. A three-decibel cut in vehicle noise emissions would be equivalent to halving traffic levels (the decibel scale is logarithmic). A ten-decibel reduction would imply cutting noise by as much as ten times. The quieter vehicles are, the less governments and local authorities have to spend on installing costly insulation barriers to protect homes and public buildings. Poorer people in urban areas, who cannot afford to move to more sought-after quieter homes, would also see the values of their properties increase as well as health improvements if traffic noise was reduced.

What’s happening?

In December 2011, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a new regulation aimed at tightening noise emissions standards for cars, vans, lorries and buses. To become law, the regulation now needs approval by the Parliament and member states. Vehicle noise standards were last updated in 1996, so were long overdue. The Commission proposal, foresees a four-decibel reduction in noise emissions from cars and a three-decibel reduction from lorries. These tightened standards should enter into force five years after the regulation receives final approval, i.e. not before 2017. EPHA, together with other environmental NGOs, has been advocating for the limits to be enforced faster, with an additional third step of reductions for all vehicles to be adopted by 2020.

What does the Commission’s proposal say?

The Commission proposal, if approved in its current form by the Parliament and the Council, is expected to reduce noise emissions from new cars and vans by 4 decibels and from lorries by 3 decibels in 5 years. The proposal is for a two-step approach:

Step 1 (entry into force two years after law is passed) - cars and vans will have to reduce their noise emissions by two decibels, lorries by one decibel.

Step 2 (entry into force three years after step 1) - cars, vans and lorries will have to cut their noise emissions by an additional two decibels.

Two years after step 1 is enforced (but not before 2016), the noise limits will be subject to revision. In the best case scenario, the regulation will enter into force in 2012, meaning that step 1 would be binding from 2014, and step 2 from 2017.

What does the European Parliament Environment Committee proposal say?

After three postponements, the Environment Committee of the European Parliament has voted for tighter future noise limits for vehicles. The standards of future noise limit values was accepted in a tight vote defeating an alternative proposal that would have allowed much louder sports cars, buses and trucks onto the road. Following the vote Mr. Ouzký (who is steering the legislation through Parliament) disappointingly announced he would not now seek agreement with the co-legislators and instead repeat the vote in a full Parliament Plenary.

The Plenary voted on the proposal on February 6th 2013. The outcome of the vote enables the Parliament and the Council to finalise the proposal ready for implementation.

Following the Plenary vote, the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) and the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) relased a Joint Press Release ’Beyond disappointment – European lawmakers on the side of automobile industry on traffic noise vote’ on February 6 2013 in which EPHA and HEAL regretted the outcome of the plenary vote. They highlighted that the majority of European Parliamentarians – the elected representatives of the citizens - have turned a blind eye to people’s concerns, and prioritised the automobile industry over everyone’s health and well-being.

- EPHA’s position on noise pollution

EPHA stressed in respect of the 7th Environment Action Programme (7thEAP) that the 7thEAP shall urgently address unsolved problems of endocrine disruptors, nanomaterials, the combined effects of chemicals and prenatal exposure and noise pollution;

(see ► EPHA position on the European Commission’s 7th Environment Action Programme)

Concerning poverty and exposure to environmental hazards, EPHA underlined that higher exposure to environmental hazards tends to follow a social deprivation gradient: people from lower socioeconomic groups are disproportionately more affected by environmental tobacco smoke, biological and chemical contamination, air pollution, sanitation and water scarcity, noise, road traffic and occupational injuries, workplace stress.

(See ► EPHA Briefing Paper on Health Inequalities)

Over the last forty years vehicle noise has increasingly impacted on the health and well-being of Europeans, and hinders performance at work and children’s learning while traffic noise standards have not been updated since the early 1990s. Noise pollution is associated with over 250,000 cases of cardiovascular disease.

Recent research proves that cutting traffic noise from vehicles would enable national governments, local authorities and society at large to enjoy benefits which would outweigh costs by a factor of more than thirty to one, saving around 89 billion Euros a year. This includes cutting health-related costs caused by noise, but also enabling local and national governments to avoid expensive measures such as installing noise barriers or insulating individual homes.

EPHA consistently stresses that human health and social well-being are affected by the quality of the environment. The European Parliament has an unprecedented opportunity to improve the life of over two hundred million of citizens by approving new regulations for noise limits from vehicles which concern the existing linkages between environment and health.

Therefore, EPHA decided to support other environmental and health NGOs (the Transport & Environment (TE), Health & Environment Alliance (HEAL)) activities to make changes happen.

- See more information on the Transport & Environment website

- Learn more about the vehicle noise related activities of the Health & Environment Alliance (HEAL) on the HEAL website

Photo source: European Commission - Research & Innovation

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Last modified on April 5 2013.