But let me first whisper to you about a recurring, revealing experience from my life. There I am sitting in an office, hotel room or conference centre, when the building's heating and ventilation system suddenly switches off. The abrupt, unexpected quiet causes at first a startle, then a physical sigh. How much background noise are we unaware of in our daily lives? How much physical stress do we endure, unconsciously? I live downtown. If I leave a window open, the noise ranges from the babbling brook of vehicle traffic to a torrent of open‑pipe motorcycles, sirens, and car alarms. Sometimes I catch myself watching TV with the volume far too high. Recently, I asked myself: How much longer can I live downtown?
Scientists use the term "habituated" to describe the state of becoming accustomed to things. Most city dwellers are not just habituated to loud noise; they're addicted to it. Walk into a popular nightclub or bar, where post‑modern tribal music is pumped out at near‑deafening levels. Loud music hides people in bubbles of shouted conversation. Loud music inspires the body to move—it tips our brain chemistry towards ecstasy. Arena operators know this well. So do health clubs. Small doses are not the issue. The issue is routine exposure to noise. The problem is being so bombarded with noise that you can't explain why silence seems deafening. Unlike other forms of pollution, there is no lingering stink or chemical stain to it. Noise is as fleeting as a fire engine's dash down main street.
Noise is subjective, too. Tolerance is partly generational, as well. Bass and drums, horns and shouts—are to many the sound-track to the bright lights of the big city. Yet perhaps the hippest city in the world, New York, launched a campaign to crack down on the causes of the most common noise complaints—motorcycles, modified cars, bars, and car alarms. Why? People were fleeing Manhattan to the 'burbs to escape the din. In Edmonton, noise pollution remains mostly a non‑issue. Police Chief Mike Boyd once said his officers would crack down on illegal, open‑pipe motorcycles. Yet EPS statistics reveal that only 12 citations for noise violations were issued this past season. If you live downtown, motorcycles are a constant annoyance. But you also endure seemingly endless sirens, as emergency vehicles respond to calls, many of them false alarms or passed‑out drunks.
Fire Chief Randy Wolsey says his officers are required by provincial law to toggle on sirens when responding to a call. Air horns—more penetrating than sirens—are used as a warning at intersections. But their use is becoming more common because fewer drivers heed sirens. In part, it's because modern cars are more sound‑proof. In part, it's because drivers can't hear over their stereos, cellphones, or iPods. In part, it's because sirens are so ubiquitous—so far reaching, geographically—that drivers have become habituated to them. I know it seems petty to question the use of sirens. A life might be lost to a few seconds' delay, right? But other cities have asked such questions—asked if there were technologies or procedures to replace or reduce incessant sirens and air horns. Wolsey, to his credit, promised to ask his environmental specialist to look into the matter further. This is but a small victory. But I think I sighed.