Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The perils of 'Horn Ok Please': Noise, speeding and rash driving

The Maharashtra government recently doubled the fines on honking. Reducing noise from traffic is important to ensure road safety in India which has the highest numbers of road accident deaths in the world

Published: Jan 31, 2022 02:03:19 PM IST
Updated: Jan 31, 2022 02:09:35 PM IST

Indian roads are among the noisiest in the world, with highest number of road accident deaths. Noise from continuous honking, which causes road rage,  has never been considered a mainstream safety issue
Image: Satyabrata Tripathy/Hindustan Times/ Getty Images

A shrill horn pierced my eardrums. I jumped: It sounded like a truck was upon me. I looked up and saw a motorcycle. Its driver twisted and turned through bumper-to-bumper traffic stopped at a signal, willing cars out of his way. Other motorcycles, with multiple blasts of jumbled tones and frequencies, followed him.

The cacophony of horns interrupting Union Minister of Road Transport Nitin Gadkari’s morning meditation in Delhi must have been even worse. Delhi’s noise levels were even higher than Mumbai’s according to the last available Report of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) of 2018.

The English word ‘noise’ is derived from ‘nautes’, the ancient Greek word for seasickness. Ancient Romans used it to define physically unpleasant sensations as bad as nausea. In English, ‘noise’ came to define the specific unpleasantness of loud, confusing sounds. The World Health Organisation (WHO) tells us that people cannot be safely exposed to more than 53 decibels of road traffic sounds in the day and 45 dB at night without experiencing noise.

The 2018 CPCB report quantified noise levels of all the six largest Indian metro cities as exceeding 80 decibels; a report submitted to the Bombay High Court by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in 2018 attributed traffic as a leading contributor in India’s first comprehensive study in 27 major cities of Maharashtra. Dr Ritesh Vijay, senior principal scientist, NEERI, who conducted the study, told me, “Our data shows honking as the most major component of traffic noise.”

I sympathised with Gadkari’s wish that soothing music could replace deafening horns. But, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as I read his ministry’s proposal to mandate horns into Indian musical instruments. I imagined different strains of music, in different genres and with unsynchronised timings. I imagined how each single horn-blast would become multiple. In Indian cities, noisiest of the world, it would seem appropriate to enforce existing rules against honking instead.

The Noise Pollution Rules, Supreme Court and High Court orders restrict decibel levels and the use of horns in residential and silence zones. Silence zones are areas near hospitals, courts, religious places and educational institutions where people are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of noise. In such sensitive areas, sound levels are required to stay below 40 decibels at night, since noise pollution critically impacts health, delivery of justice, prayer and learning outcomes.

In 2016, London resident Nigel Watts and I studied street noise levels in the vicinity of six hospitals in Mumbai and compared them with six hospitals in London. In Mumbai, the lowest noise level was outside the Lilavati Hospital, which measured 95.1 dB.  In London, the highest noise level was outside the London Clinic, which measured 88 dB. The hospital with the lowest noise levels in Mumbai measured 7.1 dB more than the hospital with the highest noise levels in London. Other Mumbai hospitals were much louder, with traffic noise outside PD Hinduja Hospital, Mahim the highest at 100.5 decibels.

I wished for the comparative quiet of London traffic. Nevertheless, Watts complained, “But all of the London hospitals are on busy roads and we found the decibel levels around all of them uncomfortable.”

Watts is far from alone in his discomfort with street noise. More than 10 years ago, a 2011 WHO Report told us that “among environmental factors in Europe, environmental noise leads to a disease burden that is second in magnitude only to that from air pollution”.

By 2021, however, noise pollution has been identified as even more damaging than air pollution by a report of the National Noise Council and the Ecological Transition Agency (Ademe) in France. It quantifies the cost of noise in France as 155.7 billion euros annually, greater than the cost of air pollution and greater even than tobacco, which are quantified at 100 billion euros and120 billion euros per year respectively.

Just before the coronavirus pandemic struck, noise pollution was named worldwide as the next big public health crisis. In densely populated Indian cities, noise pollution harms the health of billions of people.

Among its numerous adverse health impacts, hearing loss is most well understood by almost everyone. In March 2021, World Hearing Day, India’s Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan presided over the WHO launch event in Geneva. He said that India, which has conducted a survey of 92,097 people, the largest study in the world on hearing loss, “faces a mountain of hearing loss” as high as 9.95 percent of the population. This figure is set to accelerate steeply in coming years.

Recent studies also document a link between hearing loss and Alzheimer’s disease. According to the website of Johns Hopkins Medicine, “In a study that tracked 639 adults for nearly 12 years” their scientists “found that mild hearing loss doubled dementia risk. Moderate loss tripled risk, and people with a severe hearing impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia”.

Traffic policemen are among those most affected by constant honking. Noise pollution  worldwide is the next big public health crisis. In densely populated Indian cities, noise pollution harms the health of billions of people.
Image: Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

At a screening on World Hearing Day in Mumbai in March 2021, two in every three traffic constables were discovered with hearing loss.

In December 2021, I measured the sound at Mumbai’s noisiest spot, under the JJ Hospital Flyover Junction. On that ordinary day, noise pollution from honking measured 95.3 dB, continuous honking amplified by cement-concrete on all four sides. Within a few minutes, I had a headache. I asked the policeman on duty how he could bear to stand there for hours at a time. He shook his head. The noise rings in our ears even when we are asleep. We become used to its constant presence, he said.

In my noise measurements over two decades, motorcycle horns have consistently been loudest within Mumbai. In 2015, a motorcycle horn outside the Police Commissioner’s office at Crawford Market measured 110dB.

Motorcycles with tampered silencers to make them roar also continue to break noise pollution rules with impunity. Radha Rajadhyaksha lives in an area where, she says, motorcycle racing organised by the betting mafia happens in the middle of the night. “These races happen on wide roads like BKC,” she says. “Needless to stress, they disrupt sleep and are thus extremely harmful for residents’ health. The motorcyclists zoom up and down with silencers deliberately off. It’s hellish. We have been complaining to the police but the fact that it’s continued for over 15 years says it all.”

In 2008, Harish Baijal was posted as deputy commissioner of police (traffic) in Mumbai. On a routine site visit, he met a man who had lost 9 kg, suffering from the health hazard of sleeplessness from noise in his house near the long-distance bus depot at Diamond Garden, Chembur. “I understood his pain, though I was unable to change the faulty planning measures of locating an all-night bus depot in a residential area. A few years later, when I was posted at Nashik, the police department seized and crushed crores worth of illegal pressure horns under road rollers,” said Baijal.

Crushing of illegal pressure horns and modified silencers has been replicated over the years in other cities of Maharashtra. In 2013, Superintendent of Police, Thane (Rural) Anil Kumbhare crushed over two thousand pressure horns seized from trucks on the highway. “When I was posted at Mumbai city, I seized and crushed pressure horns in Mumbai too,” he said over the phone.

Although traffic constables are among those most affected by continuous honking, tampered silencers and other traffic noise, they are also empowered to enforce action against noise pollution.

In 2008, led by then Joint Commissioner of Police (Traffic) Hemant Karkare and DCP Traffic Harish Baijal, the Mumbai Traffic Police conducted their first No Horn Day and challaned 16,000 vehicles in a single day.  

However, enforcement lagged thereafter. Dr Vijay says that subsequent to NEERI’s first noise mapping of 27 cities, which created a baseline for noise monitoring non-existent prior to 2016, “We have continued mapping traffic noise along with the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board and generated a huge amount of data. This voluminous data needs to be analysed and implementation measures to control noise need to be expedited.”

In October 2021, following training sessions for police officers, Awaaz Foundation conducted the first in a series of training programmes, of 80 traffic police constables.

In December 2021, the fines for honking were doubled by a notification of the Government of Maharashtra. Joint Commissioner of Police (Traffic) Rajvardhan Sinha explains, “The fines were increased from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 for vehicles which violate environmental standards. Mumbai Traffic Police have already started implementing the increased fines, but there are some practical difficulties in challaning people who honk unnecessarily when everyone else is honking at the same time too.”

No upper limits for the decibel level of horns are enforced in India. To overcome the background of continuous noise, also created mainly by horns, multi-national car manufacturers advertise louder and stronger horns for use in India and test Indian horns “with two continuous weeks only of honking”,  said Michael Perschke, director, Audi India in 2012. “You take a European horn and it will be gone in a week or so.”

The practical difficulties Sinha mentioned have hindered police attempts to enforce noise rules stringently through long-term drives similar to their own successful campaigns for seatbelt, helmet and drink-driving rules.

New and innovative solutions to control noise pollution from traffic are being tested across the world. In and around Paris, ‘acoustic cameras’ are being installed strategically to identify noise violations. These would work similarly to speed trapping cameras, already in widespread use in India, and fines of 135 euros would be imposed.

The term ‘acoustic camera’ to describe an array of microphones and cameras which can ‘see’ sound, was first used by physiologist JR Ewald in the late 1800s. These cameras are used to measure vehicular noise at the stage of manufacture and, like speed trapping cameras, can be used to ‘see’ inappropriate sound on the roads too.

The government of Maharashtra has played a crucial role to create awareness against noise pollution from honking. In 2018, they declared a ‘No Honking Year’. Led by then Principal Secretary (Transport) Manoj Saunik, the RTO conducted a massive awareness drive, and pasted lakhs of ‘Horn Not Ok Please’ stickers on vehicles. Saunik says, “I personally took the #HornVrat against honking, too, at the launch of the campaign that highlighted that Mumbai honks 18 million times an hour. The iconic Gateway of India provided the backdrop to the pledge. The autorickshaw union volunteered to drive the mobile installation of a rickshaw fitted with hundreds of silent blow horns across the city and create awareness.”

In 2020, just before the coronavirus lockdown, the Mumbai Police released a viral video ‘The Punishing Signal’. Police constables shook their heads, helpless when people honked continuously with nowhere to go. ”We were itching to do something about this,” they said. As the red signal timed backwards, prolonging wait time, realisation of their own honking habits dawned and drivers stopped honking. “Feel free to honk… that is, if you don’t mind waiting,” said the caption. ‘Bambai Meri Hai’, the song that most underscores Mumbai’s resilience in the face of adversity, played in the background.

A practical version of the Mumbai Police’s wishful ‘Punishing Signal’ video which created awareness but is impractical to implement would be acoustic cameras which can make effective implementation a reality.

However, noise from honking, a major reason Indian roads are unsafe, has never been considered a mainstream safety issue in any of India’s 32 Road Safety weeks or months. In January 2021, Gadkari inaugurated the 32nd Road Safety Month nationally. He reiterated his ministry’s findings of 2019, that 151,113 people died in 480,652 accidents. Averaging 414 per day or 17 per hour, these figures make our road accident death rate the highest in the world.  

Consultant psychiatrist Dr Amit Desai explains that noise pollution “can make people experience road rage, as it elevates adrenalin levels”.

Road rage makes Indian drivers unsafe. An emergency warning device in the rest of the world, horns are not a substitute for the ordinary use of brakes, for road discipline or for other driving skills. In fact, honking promotes speeding, overtaking and other rash driving.

In India, loud horns are a serious safety and health hazard. We need to curb their decibel levels and use. We need to enforce noise rules for traffic on priority.

On the outskirts of Mumbai, a slow truck loomed ahead and blocked vision.  In a momentary interval of oncoming traffic, a driver behind me swerved alongside, on the wrong side of the road, his hand on his horn. He cut suddenly in, nearly head-on with a tempo rapidly emerging from the bend ahead. I slammed on the brakes. The tempo, also blowing its horn, passed. The driver swerved forward again, secure in the invincibility of his own deafening honking.

-Sumaira Abdulali is the convener of Awaaz Foundation