by David Sigmund

The Trenton Times

June 2, 2006

BEEEP-BEEEP-BEEEP-BEEEP. Like a slasher horror movie, escape is impossible, no matter where you try to run, flee, hide or burrow. The m erciless, piercing attack is everywhere – screeching away nearly every day from outside my family’s house in supposedly bucolic, peaceful Princeton. Over the roar of the surf on the beach at the Jersey Shore. Even outside a Buddhist temple atop a mountain in the Catskills.

Anyone who lives anywhere outside an ICBM shelter knows what I’m talking about; the government-mandated noise pollution of the back-up alarms that now seem to be attached to every truck, van, bus or construction vehicle larger than a Tonka toy. Meant to alert construction and sanitation workers, pedestrians and drivers behind it that the vehicle is in reverse, those devices are so loud, so randomly undirected and so ludicrously high-pitched that they have become instead an officially approved assault on public space and invasion of the aural privacy of everyone living or working within a three-block radius. As sound expert Max Neuhaus observed, these overill alarms are akin to “an idiot trying to kill flies with a hammer.”

So the question begs to be asked: Why does our physical safety require the sacrifice of our hearing and an enjoyable outdoor (and often indoor) environment? Can’t workers and the public both be protected?

I set to find out, and the answer is a qualified yes. There are alternatives that are either in place now in certain areas or being seriously considered. The alternatives include:

* Broad band or white-noise alarms. These devices make a softer noise that sounds like “sheee … sheee,” instead of the narrowband high-frequency alarms, which produce high pitched beeping.

* Radar-based alarms. Those can detect an object behind a vehicle and sound an alarm inside the driver’s cab. An exterior alarms is activated only as the vehicle gets close to an object, not when it’s simply moving back and forth.

* Photocell alarms. For night use, these backwards-flashing lights switch the warning device from audible to visual.

I did an internet search on back-up or revers alarms and found complaints from Britain, Australia, and even Hawaii – people writing that their vacations were ruined by the infernal beeping. The knee-jerk reaction to noise complaints, that those bothered can simply move, doesn’t quite work when the same noise haunts you 2,000 miles out into the Pacific.

In fact, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not require high-pitched beeping, but only that the reverse-alarms must be “audible above the surrounding ambient noise level.” It also allows a flagman or other employee to signal that it is safe to back up. However, though regulations don’t require that the noise be so high-pitched and loud, manufacturers are often afraid to use anything less because of the threat of lawsuits, according to Robert Andres, a certified safety professional who consults with a group called Noise Free America. Distributors also can be sued, he said.

In the case of broadband or white-noise alarms, the British are definitely leading the way, since the technology was developed earlier there. One issue is that the new white-noise alarms, at about $250 each, are much more expensive than the standard back-up alarms, which, for a cheap model, can cost as little as $50.

But the question is what society gets for the money in terms of quality of life. By thismeasure, broadband white noise seems like the best bargain.

Why? The sound is much less shrill and piercing, and its source is immediately recognizable and confined to the hazard area behind the vehicle, instead of bouncing off buildings and other objects. It also doesn’t travel as far and dissipates faster than standard alarms. For workers, lower frequencies actually penetrate earplugs and other car defenders more easily.

Broadband is currently being used at the Port of Houston, and is being evaluated by the departments of transportation of Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota and the cities of Seattle and Orlando. It is being used on a small scale by the Pentagon, according to Jack Woginrich, North American sales manager for U.K.-based Brigade Electronics. William Suruce, the New York City Department of Sanitation’s assistant chief of vehicles, was particularly enthusiastic about the possibility of adopting, after further testing, this technology on its 2,042 rear-loading vehicles. Suruce called it “unique” and noted that it could be heard over jackhammers to the rear of the vehicle but not at all on the sides.

Disagreeable noise drives people apart, making civic life unpleasant and at times impossible. With New Jersey and other states now trying to encourage the building of more dense nodes of mixed-use development, it rewards the sprawl-producing separation of land uses into enclaves (residential, business, retail, etc). Places with character and close-knit street life like Society Hill in Philadelphia or even central Princeton are diminished, threatened and penalized in favor of deadly boring but relatively quiet cul-de-sac development.

After the street construction crews left my neighborhood in Princeton for a weekend this spring, I found myself hearing an unfamiliar sound. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that it was the wind whispering through the leaves of the trees. It was the kind of pleasant outdoor noise that I had forgotten, a reminder of all we are losing, and all we’ve lost.