We need a noise trespass law. At the very least, the concept of noise trespass should be as familiar among the general population as physical trespass.
Why is going onto someone’s private property without permission (physical trespass) considered a wrong? Because doing so is intrusive (presuming a right to privacy) and potentially damaging. The same goes for sending noise onto someone’s private property.
Noise is intrusive because it—the sound of machinery, loud music, screaming kids, even conversations (having to listen to someone have an extended cellphone conversation, for example)—detracts and distracts from whatever one is trying to do, whether that’s watching tv, listening to (one’s own preferred) music, writing an essay, filling out income tax returns, sleeping…it doesn’t really matter. Surely we have a right to privacy concerning our attention; noise hijacks our attention—it coerces us to pay attention to something we don’t want to pay attention to.
Noise is potentially damaging in a number of ways. Depending on a number of factors (of which dB is only one), noise “damages hearing [at least 20% of teenagers now suffer from slight hearing loss], disturbs communication, disrupts sleep, affects heart function, intrudes on cognition…, reduces productivity, provokes unwanted behaviors, and increases accidents” (Mitra). It can also cause or contribute to “anxiety, stress, nervousness, nausea, headache, emotional instability, argumentativeness, sexual impotence, change in mood, increase in social conflicts, neurosis, hysteria, and psychosis” (Noise Free America).
Noise produced by industry, airports, and so on is already being monitored and regulated. I’m talking here about the noise caused by individuals in residential neighborhoods. Various sound charts put city traffic at around 80dB, the subway at 88dB, a garbage truck at 100dB; lawnmowers and leafblowers can also be as high as 100dB, and chainsaws, dirt bikes, ATVs, boat motors, and PWCs are louder still, at around 110dB.
But, one might object, although we own our own property, and so have a right to object when someone trespasses on it, we don’t own the air over our property, and sound travels through the air. There are several replies to this: we shouldn’t own the land either (and yet physical trespass might still be wrong, merely because of occupancy); we should also own the air over our land (in which case, noise trespass is as wrong as physical trespass); we collectively own the air (and that’s sufficient to consider noise a trespass); ownership is irrelevant altogether (occupancy is sufficient). People get upset when a neighbour’s dandelion seeds travel through air and land on their property; is there not similar justification for getting upset when a neighbour’s sound waves travel through air and ‘land’—ah, but they don’t land on one’s property. No, but they ‘land’ on one’s eardrums: sound is not perceived until the sound waves ‘hit’ one’s eardrums. Surely that’s even more intrusive: the sound waves actually touch our body, not just our property.
In any case, smoke from burning tires travels through air, and if it travels from your neighbour’s property through the air onto your property, or, more accurately, into the air over your property, perhaps even through your open windows into your house, you would, I think, cry foul.
In addition to the intrusion and the damage, most of the annoying noise caused by individuals is avoidable. Manual lawnmowers, rakes, and clippers have enabled people to take care of their lawns for almost a century. I suspect that dirt bikes, ATVs, and PWCs can be redesigned to be quiet; for starters, could they not use electric motors rather than two-stroke gas-powered motors? They certainly don’t have to be modified to increase their noise (as they often are), and they can be driven in a fashion that minimizes their noise (as they often are not). And, of course, people could use instead bicycles, kayaks, canoes, and so on. And earbuds or headphones. And landline phones inside buildings.
All of which begs the question: why don’t we consider noise trespass to be trespass? Are we so unable to consider the invisible and the intangible? It we can’t see it or touch it, it doesn’t exist? Despite its obvious effects?
Or is it that men like noise? (After all, for the most part, they’re the ones making it.) And it is the male view, male interests, male values that dictate law and custom, make no mistake about that. This is the view presented at Manly Power Tools. It’s also the view endorsed by a certain electronic composer who, when asked why he writes such loud, dense music, replied “Besides the obvious? The desire to fill all this space with sound?” Perhaps men are still being led around by their primitive brain, and all their noise is just a sublimated roar, mistakenly believed to be necessary for survival. (Which begs the question: when will they evolve into homo sapiens?)