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On June 28, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin made an appeal to Chennai motorists to stop honking unnecessarily, and to join the movement by not honking. He urged them to sign and spread an e-pledge. However, his request was drowned in most parts of the city, as drivers simply pressed on with their audio battering rams, hammering other road users into submission.
The Greater Chennai Traffic Police undertook the anti-honking campaign at several locations, portraying those taking the pledge as Superman and Superwoman characters, even catching young children at school. Children are at the receiving end of incessant honking. At some places, such as Ashok Pillar in Ashok Nagar, there were selfie points with colourful cartoon characters. All very good messaging against mindless horn use.
But at the end of the weeklong campaign, nothing much changed, except for some honkers who were in the wrong place, and got their blaring weapons removed by the Police under the glare of cameras. Others had little to worry about, and the culture of “keep calm and carry on honking” remained undisturbed.
It turns out that Chennai’s vehicular horns – some of which are replaced with aftermarket weapon-horns meant to “blast” people out of the path of vehicles – have become shriller over time. Historian V. Sriram, in his message of support for the “no honking” Police campaign, pointed out that when the first cars were imported from Japan in the 80s and 90s, everything worked fine except the horns, which wore out quickly. That’s because the horns had a life of about one lakh honks in Japan, but Indians tend to honk that much in just a month. That explains the high-decibel aftermarket.
Harsh honking sounds were found to have a decibel level of 116 dB(A) on average at 2 metres, and the peak noise in the study locations was as follows: Kotturpuram 83.2 dB(A) with 125 honks in 15 minutes from 798 vehicles; IT-Highway 84.5 dB(A) with 143 honks from 951 vehicles; Guindy 91.9 dB(A) with 263 honks from 1,760 vehicles; Indira Nagar junction 91.1 dB(A) with 142 honks from 912 vehicles to cite four of the six locations.
Why so much honking?
The explanation lies in the carnival-style character of Indian roads, where high-speed vehicles, an army of two-wheelers, ramshackle carts, harried pedestrians and stray animals all compete for meagre space. It doesn’t help either that the Traffic Police don’t regularly pounce on errant drivers.
Two researchers who studied Chennai’s honking patterns and measured the noise, A. Kalaiselvi and A. Ramachandraiah, call the city a “heterogeneous” mix of road users. They studied why the metropolis is a honker’s paradise at six locations and wrote a paper in the journal Applied Acoustics five years ago.
What the research data records is familiar to the average Chennai road user, and to those who happen to live close to or work in establishments along major roads. Those harsh honking sounds were found to have a decibel level of 116 dB(A) on average at 2 metres, and the peak noise in the study locations was as follows: Kotturpuram 83.2 dB(A) with 125 honks in 15 minutes from 798 vehicles; IT-Highway 84.5 dB(A) with 143 honks from 951 vehicles; Guindy 91.9 dB(A) with 263 honks from 1,760 vehicles; Indira Nagar junction 91.1 dB(A) with 142 honks from 912 vehicles to cite four of the six locations.
That is a lot of honking.
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A horn can be used as a danger warning, or to make a protest. In Chennai, honking has its own subculture:
- If a larger vehicle is ahead of a two-wheeler, it must make way or suffer incessant honking
- Two-wheelers honk just for the fun of it along interior roads – it involves no expense or risk
- MTC bus stops become a barrier for impatient cars and two-wheelers, who will honk until the bus moves on, making way for them
- Pedestrians forced to use the road margins because there are no usable pavements face loud honking from behind. The logic seems to be, why are they not on a two-wheeler themselves?
- Cars serving political personages, from a civic Councillor to State Minister, have aftermarket horns that deliver a powerful blast. This is compounded by escort Police cars honking furiously.
- Autorickshaws don’t usually have powerful horns, but weave around cars, often triggering honking bouts. They often have malfunctioning silencers to boot.
- Private omnibuses and lorries have pressure air horns, often multi-tone, which are used in bus stand areas and suburbs liberally
- Traditional impatience at traffic intersections for a red signal culminates in loud bursts
Ironically, it is some of the indifferent classes that suffer the effects of noise pollution more than others. Policemen exposed to prolonged and excessive honking are one. Autorickshaw drivers of Chennai, well known for tampering with their silencers, may already have suffered partial hearing loss. One study by H.T. Anil and his colleague of Kempegowda Institute of Medical Sciences in Bengaluru (Indian Journal of Otolaryngology and Head & Neck Surgery, 2020) showed that 40% of autorickshaw drivers displayed noise-induced hearing loss in that city.
What can be done?
The Greater Chennai Traffic Police initiative is laudable. It put the issue on the city’s radar. What it needs is consistent follow up.
Road intersections are a good place to start. If police find someone honking merely to get others to move, showing undue haste, there is a case for a warning, a traffic record and later a fine.
A stronger approach to overall traffic policing will calm motorists down, since there will be fear of enforcement, and the “honking mania” triggered by impatience will subside. In Mumbai, the Police installed audio sensors to traffic signals and when honking exceeded 85 dB(A), the red light reset for another 90 second wait. An automatic penalty for honking.
Pedestrians can be safe and clear of impatient motorists if they have good, usable, unobstructed pavements. These are not expensive and serve everyone.
A stronger approach to overall traffic policing will calm motorists down, since there will be fear of enforcement, and the “honking mania” triggered by impatience will subside.
The Police can understand the problem better through public health studies of high-exposure groups, such as their own staff, to see how many have hearing loss. The US Centers for Disease Control say: Car horns at 16 feet with a decibel level of 100 could cause hearing loss after 15 minutes.
Clearly, horns can do a lot of harm in Chennai and elsewhere in urban India.
If you live along a noisy road full of honking, change windows to noise-proof glass.
There were 31 lakh two-wheelers, 9.6 lakh cars, 1.03 lakh autorickshaws, and 30,000 taxis registered in Chennai as of 2020. That is a lot of horns and noise sources. A cheap device for everyone in a horn-crazy society such as India is a set of ear plugs. Never leave home without a pair.
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