Charting a new way forward that will see the citizens renouncing the age-long habit of noise-making through their vehicle horns, Lagos State recently set aside October 15 as its ‘Horn Free Day’. As many residents and observers attested, a majority of road users keyed into the exercise by repudiating the culture of honking their horns needlessly. This is a good take off point.
Ordinarily, a vehicle horn is a sound-making device used to warn others of the approach of a vehicle or of its presence. In many countries, automobiles are all required by law to have horns. What is objectionable is when the horn is seemingly used for anything and everything –an issue that is causing noise-induced hearing loss and non-auditory health effects.
A medical journal, Lancet, says the non-auditory health effects of noise include annoyance and sleep disturbance. Several studies have also shown that noise pollution can increase the prevalence of cardiovascular disease and mortality in highly noise-exposed persons. Environmental noise exposure can also negatively affect children’s learning outcomes and cognitive performance. The World Health Organisation warns, “Excessive noise seriously harms human health and interferes with people’s daily activities at school, at work, at home and during leisure time. It can disturb sleep; cause cardiovascular and psycho-physiological effects, reduce performance and provoke annoyance responses and changes in social behaviour.” Other expert opinions submit that noise can lead to hypertension.
But ultimately, the objective should be to join the rest of the civilised world in freeing our roads and neighbourhoods of the tyranny of petulant drivers and other sundry noise pollutants. This is an arduous task that cannot be achieved by ephemerally dedicating only one day in a year to such a noble cause. The road to decorum in driving is slippery. Only a focused, sustained campaign devoid of strict officialdom, revenue generation (from fines) and illegality but reinforced by a trend-setting leadership will be the game changer.
Yet, the one-day window got rave reviews, to the extent that the sceptical –even obdurate –commercial ‘Danfo’ bus drivers were delighted to the point of wanting an encore. Being a highly urbanised state, the noise decibels do hit execrable heights. When the din from car horns is added, the equation aggregates to bedlam or chaos, particularly in traffic bottlenecks and traffic light stops.
Ridding Lagos of noise-addicted drivers will involve all road users, but the government needs to build on the gains of the horn-free day. On its part, it should design a template on how to drive without using horns, except in emergencies. Laws would have to be made, but they have to be friendly in order to be enforceable. Government officials must lead by example.The police should enforce the order restricting the use of siren to a limited number of public officials.
Over time, some cities that have entrenched the culture of horn-free driving have applied awareness campaign, corrections and warnings, rather than using the ultimate penalty of prosecution. The rules should also be clearly spelt out to avoid offenders claiming ignorance. Similarly, the government should work on dilapidated roads, a major factor in traffic congestion. The efforts to rid the state of commercial motorcyclists are welcome and should be sustained as the once-ubiquitous motorcyclists caused havoc on the roads. Other measures that could reduce congestion are also important.
Governor Babatunde Fashola deserves strong support for his effort to reduce noise pollution from vehicle horns. But beyond this, practical actions to limit and control the exposure to environmental noise are essential. There is the need to set new community noise guidelines. He should rein in religious organisations, music vendors, motorcycle riders and government officials blaring loudspeakers, horns and sirens with impunity. The partnership unveiled by Lagos two years ago, in which worship centres were made to tone down their services by removing external speakers, should be deepened. Many religious places are still very guilty of excessive noises. They must be checked to make for a sane society.
According to Lancet, although drugs to protect against noise-induced hearing loss are being pursued, they are at least a decade away from becoming a reality. Prevention is therefore the best option. Hearing protection and noise control are important areas of public health that deserve far greater recognition. Crucially, music vendors at street corners are an ever present menace. It does not take much for the government to whip them into line.
If Fashola is leading by example by shunning sirens when driving, no public official should be allowed to terrorise road users with convoys of vehicles with blinkers and wailing sirens.