by Mary Schmich

Chicago Tribune

April 11, 2007

One day my neighbor had finally had it with the bleeping back-up beep.

She was home, pregnant, with a napping toddler, and the construction site across the street was blasting the daily, all-day fanfare.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Another old house had been torn down and was being replaced by one far bigger, and day after day, the big machines performed their bump and grind.

Noise is a price of city life, but in some parts of Chicago it’s like a mortgage you can never pay off. Old houses are knocked down as casually as bowling pins. The moment one new house is finished, the next old one is toppled and the construction band cranks up again.

Banging. Rumbling. Slamming. My neighbor could endure all that, along with the feeling of living atop an earthquake fault that constantly shocked the Richter scale.

But the bleeping beep? That’s what broke her.

Every time a truck backed up. Beep. Beep. Beep. Each time a backhoe or a bulldozer went into reverse. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

“Like Chinese water torture,” she says, only it was shrill, like bats, sharp, like arrows at her head.

So one day, she marched across the street, mustered all her courage and took aim: “So, um, when will you be done?”

Oh, she’d wanted to say so much more, but she’s instinctively polite, and she feared the construction guys were looking at her and thinking, “Crazy housewife.”

She eventually found the gumption to say what needed to be said—”Can you disable that?”—and was told no, it was a safety requirement.

She knew then what she had to do: She went home.

What? You expected a more exciting end to the story? That’s the point. The bleeping beep is one of those routine city scourges for which there is no easy defeat.

Thank God that doesn’t stop Ted Rueter from trying.

“They’re ridiculous,” says Rueter, when I tracked him down in search of support for the anti-beeper cause. “Can anyone show me that lives have actually been saved by constant beeping?”

Rueter is a Beloit College assistant political science professor with a master’s from the University of Chicago. He’s also the founder of Noise Free America, based in Madison, Wis. Its agenda includes the back-up beepers.

Even a noisephobe has to be willing to sacrifice for safety, but, in Rueter’s view, the beepers risk being not just a nuisance, but a menace.

“They’re so constant that no one can take them seriously,” he says. “They’re as stupid as car alarms. Car alarms are ubiquitous, and nobody takes them seriously.”

In 2003, after a payloader in New York backed up and crushed a man, investigators noted that people who work around back-up beepers often become desensitized to them as warnings.

“Like anything, familiarity breeds contempt,” says Bob Andres, Noise Free America’s technical adviser and a safety engineer who specializes in big equipment.

Part of the beeper problem, he says, is that makers of construction machines don’t know where they’ll be used. So they design the beepers to be audible in the noisiest settings.

In other words, a beeper in a quiet neighborhood typically operates at the same volume as one at the new skyscraper site downtown next to the expressway.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Newer, better beepers do exist, though because they cost more and involve some legal confusion they’re not much used.

There’s the beeper that senses ambient noise and beeps only as loudly as necessary. The beeper that uses a radar or sonar detector and sounds only if something is behind the vehicle. The broadband alarm that’s more hiss than shriek.

“And there’s the warbler,” says Andres, imitating one and inadvertently proving that a warble isn’t always better than a beep.

Of the city’s many problems, the bleeping beeper is hardly the worst. Unlike so many others, though, it’s one that could be fixed.

Do you have a good tale of living near a bleeping construction site? Send it, short, to [email protected].