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When traffic decreased with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, it took the noise with it. Of course, traffic has since had its comeback, going back to its pre-pandemic capacity — especially in Los Angeles. As California continues to reopen and more people get vaccinated, this is only likely to worsen rather than get better.
A recent Slate article highlighted an important pandemic change we should try to hold on to: “Even after a tough year, the acoustic part of the early lockdown is one aspect of the pandemic we should remember warmly: Our neighborhoods weren’t just more enjoyable without cars constantly rumbling by. The reduced noise made them healthier, too.”
It is known that prolonged exposure to noise is deeply harmful for people’s health. A study of London residents found that those subjected to sustained, high levels of traffic noise were more likely to die, especially from strokes. Another study done in Sweden had similar findings, but the cause of death was increased risk of heart attacks. Even the World Health Organization noted that excessive noise can “cause cardiovascular and psychophysiological effects, reduce performance, and provoke annoyance responses and changes in social behavior.” Moreover, loud nocturnal sounds interrupt sleep, disrupting circadian rhythms and leading to hypertension.
Looking to the future, we can hope that the growing popularity of electric vehicles can allow urban streets to grow quieter, since they are shockingly quiet because their motors have few moving parts. EVs are not the solution, though. Their lack of noise can actually create added risk for pedestrians and bicyclists who rely on the sound of the engines to detect oncoming traffic. Also, 75 to 90% of most traffic noise is caused not by internal combustion engines but by tires rubbing against asphalt, according to California’s transportation department.
Anne Moudon, a professor emerita at the University of Washington’s department of urban design and planning, told Slate that slower streets can be one potentially promising solution for noise. “Noise grows logarithmically with speed,” she said, “so slowing automobiles—whether electric or otherwise—is very important.”
Speeding is one of the most common causes of all traffic collisions, not only in the city of Los Angeles, but throughout the entire country. According to statistics compiled by The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 30% of all fatal car accidents can be directly attributed to speeding. In 2017 alone, speeding killed an alarming 9,717 people in the U. S. In other words, speeding accounted for over a quarter (26%) of all traffic fatalities that year.
But then the pandemic happened, and the numbers grew exponentially. Emptier roads in California led to more speeding, which then led to more fatalities, since the collisions increased in severity. Citations issued by the state highway patrol for speeding over 100 miles per hour roughly doubled to 31,600 during the pandemic’s first year.
California has been grappling with how to reduce traffic deaths, a problem that has actually worsened nationwide over the past decade but, as aforementioned, gained urgency since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Laura Friedman, a California Assembly member, wants to reform how California sets speed limits on local roads. AB 43 would allow local authorities to set some speed limits without using the 85th percentile method. The 85th percentile method is defined as the speed at or below which 85% of all vehicles are observed to travel under free-flowing conditions past a monitored point. Every 10 years, state engineers survey a stretch of road to see how fast people are driving. Then they base the speed limit on the 85th percentile of that speed, or how fast 85% of drivers are going.
AB 43 would require traffic surveyors to consider areas like work zones, schools, and senior centers, where vulnerable people may be using the road, when setting speed limits.