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Intrusive community noises yield more complaints

Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Elizabeth Deignan, M.A., Yael Bat-Chava, Ph.D. and Nancy B. Nadler , M.E.D., M.A. | Hearing Rehabilitation Quarterly – Volume 25, Number 1 (2000)

How bothered are people by noises in their neighborhoods? Do they complain about these noises? To answer these questions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Noise Abatement (1977) collected data from seven cities for a total of 2,037 individuals, 732 men and 1275 women. The resulting document The Urban Noise Survey reported that 62 percent of the respondents rated their neighborhoods as quiet, whereas 46 percent claimed to be bothered by noises in their neighborhoods. Motor vehicles accounted for most of these complaints, and television complaints were ranked at the bottom. There were no differences in gender with respect to these ratings of noise. Nationwide, 9 percent of all the respondents indicated that they had complained about noise in their neighborhoods, leading the authors of this survey to conclude that the proportion of the population that complains about noise “…is a poor predictor of the prevalence of annoyance.”

Borsky (1980) concurs with the Office of Noise Abatement’s assessment that very large numbers of people are bothered by noises but adds that few complain to the authorities. In his earlier paper (1969) Borsky found that only 20 to 23 percent of the exposed population complains about noise intrusions. Similarly, Kryter (1985) concluded that complaints are not a good measure of community annoyance.

In Community Noise (1995) edited by Berglund and Lindvall, the authors state that “noise is one of the most frequent reasons for public protest.” The authors then identify complaints to authorities as one of the examples of public protest. However, they then conclude that : “Commonly only 5 and 10 percent of residents exposed to noise actually complain or participate in any related activity.”

In the last twenty years there is growing evidence, as noted from stories in the media and from the formation of anti-noise groups internationally, that noise pollution is even more pervasive. That noise ranks high as urban complaints can be ascertained from the New York City Police Department’s Quality of Life Hot Line, which in 1998 recorded over 70 percent of its calls as noise-related. In a recent environmental survey of New York City’s community boards, with 83 percent of them responding, the Council on the Environment (1999) found that noise pollution was identified as one of the top three environmental issues of concern to these boards that represent over seven million New Yorkers. Although the Council study and the data from the New York City Hot Line validate noise as a serious problem in this large urban metropolis, unfortunately they provide no real information on the percentage of those affected who take the time to complain.

Researchers agree that noise is annoying, but they also agree that the majority of the people affected by the noise do not complain. As to the reasons for this failure to complain, Langdon (1978) hypothesized that people with low income placed lesser value on quiet because they were more concerned with “basic needs.” It would then follow that poor people might complain less. Personality factors could serve as an explanation, but Tempest (1985), after looking at a number of investigations linking noise to personality traits, found them to be inconclusive. Another explanation lies in the “learned helplessness” concept in that people stop complaining because it had done no good to do so in the past; thus they simply suffer the pain and stop complaining.

Susan Staples (1996) rightfully concluded that our inability to fully understand the psychological reasons involved in complaining has not allowed us to adequately predict annoyance levels for communities. Policy makers have used this lack of information on noise annoyance levels to justify their lax attitude in setting standards to protect people from noise. This is true in the United States as well as in other countries of the world.

The Center for Hearing and Communication has been concerned about the failure of governments to treat noise pollution as a hazard to human health and welfare. In the United States, the Center has worked actively to refund the Office of Noise Abatement and Control so that noise would once again be treated as a serious environmental pollutant. In line with this project and its interest in providing lawmakers with more information on the impact noise has on people, the Center undertook a survey to examine the intrusiveness of noise on people’s lives and the characteristics of those individuals who decided to do something to abate the noise.



A total of 647 individuals completed a Community Noise Survey; 56 percent female and 44 percent male. Their ages ranged from the late teens to 90 years old, with a mean age of 43. Although the questionnaire was available worldwide, 84.4 percent of the respondents lived in the United States, 9.6 percent lived in Canada and the remainder elsewhere in the world. The majority resided in cities (59.2 percent) with 21 percent living in the suburbs, 13.1 percent in small towns, and 6.6 percent in rural areas.

Community noise survey

The Community Noise Survey was developed by the Center’s International Noise Awareness Day steering committee. The questionnaire solicited the following information: types of noises that were disturbing, how often these noises were bothersome, the activities intruded upon by these noises, feelings elicited by noise intrusions, and what respondents did to abate the noises.


Subjects were given the Survey as part of the activities the Center for Hearing and Communication had prepared for its 1999 International Noise Awareness Day (INAD). Some of the subjects completed the Survey on the Center’s Web site (50.9 percent) and others at locations that held events associated with INAD (49.1 percent).


Types of noises

The questionnaire listed 20 specific noises, and subjects were asked whether or not these noises disturbed them. They were also asked to rate, on a 5-point scale (0=Never; 4=All the time), how often they were bothered by these noises. Table 1 presents a listing of the specific noises and the numbers of respondents that chose each. Vehicles, which included cars, trucks and buses, were reported by the largest percent of respondents as being bothersome. Motorcycles were identified as the second most bothersome; airplanes or helicopters ranked third. Bars or nightclubs and recreational activities, e.g. sports stadiums and race tracks, were ranked at the bottom of the list.

With respect to how often these specific noises were bothersome, it was not surprising that vehicles ranked first. Loud music and car alarms took second and third positions in the rankings. Again bars or nightclubs and recreational activities were at the bottom. (See Table 2).

Activities intruded upon

Six activities were identified as those with which noise interfered, and subjects checked off the ones that applied to them. An “Other” category enabled respondents to add their own activities to the list. There was no limit imposed on number of activities to be selected.

A majority of all the respondents reported that noise limited their ability to keep their windows opened (57.3 percent). Differences were found amongst people from different types of communities. For example, a majority of the subjects living in cities reported that noise also interfered with sleep, talking on the telephone, and work and study. Less than 20 percent of the subjects living in the suburbs, less than 15 percent of the subjects in small towns and less than 6 percent of the respondents in rural areas reported interference in these areas.

Approximately 40 percent of the people living in the city noted that noise interfered with radio and television listening, and 21 percent indicated that noise interfered with their ability to talk with others in their homes. Radio and television listening were selected by 33.1 percent in the suburbs, 24.7 percent in the small towns and 28.2 percent in the rural areas. Inability to converse were chosen by 15.3 percent of those living in the suburbs, 22.1 percent of the small town dwellers and 12.8 percent of those living in rural areas.

Of interest is the response to the “Other” category. Seventy-eight people checked this category, with 34 reporting that noise interfered with their ability to relax or unwind and 24 stating that noise interrupted their ability to enjoy the outdoors.

Feelings elicited by noises

The survey identified six emotional responses to noise. Respondents were not limited to how many feelings they could check off. Two open-ended questions allowed respondents to identify a specific illness or a feeling not listed.

The majority (72 percent) reported that noise made them feel annoyed. The other feelings were as follows: Angry (43.1 percent), Helpless (31.2 percent), Upset (30.3 percent) and Overwhelmed (19.6 percent), and Made Physically Ill (11.7 percent). Eleven percent identified other feelings, namely Extremely Agitated, Overall Stress and Tiredness.

Taking action to abate the noise

Participants were asked whether they had ever filed a noise complaint and, if so, to specify the type of noise, the response to the complaint, how quickly the response came, and whether the complaint lessened the noise. Over half (59.4 percent) reported that they had never filed noise complaints with the police or governmental agency. Of those 40 percent who reported having complained to the authorities, only 38 percent specified the type of noise as follows: music — 37.1 percent, people noises — 14.5 percent, and vehicles (trucks and cars) — 10.1 percent.

Of the 40 percent who had complained, a majority (62 percent) did receive a response. Most of these responses occurred in less than one hour (43.2 percent). Other respondents reported the following: “over 1 hour — 1 day” (5.8 percent), “over 1 day — 1 week” (9.0 percent), “over 1 week — 1 month” (2.6 percent), “over 1 month — 1 year” (2.6 percent).

Less than 20 percent reported that their complaint led to the noise being stopped or reduced. Thus 80 percent of the respondents noted that the noise problem had not been resolved successfully.

Differences among participants

Age: Older, rather than younger respondents, were more likely to report feelings of anger, helplessness, being upset, and overwhelmed by noise.

Gender: Women, more than men, were significantly more bothered by loud music, car alarms, horns, honking, rowdy passersby, loud movies and restaurants. Females were significantly more intruded upon by noise with respect to work and study. On the other hand, males were more likely to report a complaint to the police, although the difference did not reach significance. With respect to getting a response from the authorities, there were no differences between males and females, but more women, than men, reported that their problem was resolved, although the difference was not statistically significant.

National Differences: Of all the noises listed in the survey, only loud music was significantly more bothersome to people living in the United States (Mean = 1.97) than those outside of the U.S. (Mean =1.66). This difference was significant at the .05 level. Also reaching significance was the finding that noise interrupted telephone and home conversations for U.S. residents more than for those outside the U.S.

With respect to the feelings elicited by the noises, more U.S. residents (33.4 percent) as compared to those outside the U.S.(21.7 percent) reported feelings of helplessness. This difference was statistically significant at the .05 level. Also noteworthy was the fact that U.S. citizens also complained more to officials than non-Americans, although the difference did not reach significance.

Residential Locale: An analysis of variance (Table 3) identified differences among participants depending upon their residential locale (city, suburbs, small town or rural). Further analyses of the data found that noises generally identified with urban living — e.g.: cars and trucks, city and industrial services, bars or nightclubs, rowdy passersby, car alarms and horn honking — were more frequently cited by city dwellers. Helicopter and aircraft noises were more bothersome to suburbanites; recreational vehicles (snowmobiles, jet skis and dirt bikes) were more disturbing to rural dwellers than to city residents; and loud music was most bothersome to people who lived in small towns. All participants, independent of residence, complained about dog barking, loud movies, restaurants and boom cars.

A larger percentage of people who lived in cities also reported noise-related interruptions in their lives with respect to keeping their windows opened, talking on the telephone, working or studying, and sleeping.

There was a significant difference, based on where people resided, as to whether or not they complained about noises to officials. The largest percentage of complaints (65.7 percent) were registered by city residents. Suburbs accounted for 19.7 percent, small towns 10.5 percent and rural 4.2 percent. No significant differences were found as to whether complaints were acknowledged by authorities or whether the problem was resolved.

Complainant vs. Non-Complainant: As noted above, men and city dwellers were more likely to be noise complainants. Of particular interest were two other findings characterizing the complainant in contrast to the non-complainant: complainants reported a significantly higher number of feelings and significantly named more activities that were interfered with by the noises. The one emotion that typified the complainant significantly was anger.


Consistent with The Urban Noise Survey (1977) that found motor vehicles accounting for most of the noise complaints, respondents to the Community Noise Survey also listed motor vehicles as the number noise source. This is not surprising in that motor vehicle traffic has increased considerably over these past twenty years. That noise from airplanes and helicopters ranked among the top three noise sources was also not surprising in that air travel has also increased tremendously. Zaner (1991), in discussing how bothersome aircraft noise was to Americans, quoted a 1997 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report that found that some 14 million people were disturbed by airplane noise. One can just imagine how many more residents must be bothered today by overhead jets and helicopters!

That bars and restaurant noise did not rank high for the subjects in general but did for those living in the city is supported by the stories in the press that have reported an increase in outside restaurants and bars in urban communities. New York City and New Orleans are two cities in which noise complaints have climbed with the addition of such facilities. Similarly those who answered this survey did not place recreational activities, e.g. sports stadiums, race tracks, high on their noise complaint list, but more stories have appeared in the press indicating opposition from groups where such facilities are being planned.

Respondents were given a long list of noises to identify as bothersome. Even the activities at the bottom of the list (e.g. bars or nightclubs, restaurants, recreational vehicles) were still chosen by over two hundred of the respondents (approximately one-third of the sample). This clearly indicates that the range of noises to which people are exposed is wide and clearly speaks to the pervasiveness of noise pollution. This also indicates that cities and towns around the world probably lack the appropriate legislation to deal with these many different sources of noise. For example, the New York City noise code was written thirty years ago at a time when noise was not as widespread as it is today. Cities like Albuquerque, New Mexico, are reviewing their noise codes. Indeed, citizen groups around the globe — e.g.: U.S. Citizens Aviation Watch, Noise Network in London, New Jersey Citizens Against Aircraft Noise, Toronto’s Citizens Against Noise, and Vancouver Society for Soundscape Awareness and Protection — are demanding that their legislators pay more attention to noise pollution and write laws that would more effectively protect citizens from the encroaching sounds.

Participants indicated that noises disturbed them emotionally and interfered with their daily activities. That these emotions, if sustained, may lead to illness is confirmed by the growing body of studies that have linked noise and illness (Fay, 1991; Health Council of the Netherlands, 1994; Kryter, 1985; Tempest, 1985). When noises interfere with daily activities, we can assume that for such people their “quality of life” has been lessened (Bronzaft, et al. 1998). These individuals may not yet experience measurable illnesses, but a life intruded upon by repeated noises is certainly not a life of pleasure and contentment.

That 40 percent of the respondents bothered by noise have complained to the authorities may indicate that more people today are speaking up in defense of their rights. This figure is considerably higher than the 20 to 23 percent cited by Brodsky and the 5 to 10 percent estimated by Berglund and Lindvall. Seeking to explain this higher figure, we look to fact that many of our respondents came to a Web site on noise, indicating more concern about the problem of noise. Furthermore, some of the individuals who had completed our survey were affiliated with anti-noise organizations. Such individuals would be more likely to feel they had the “right to peace and quiet” and as a result would be more likely to register noise complaints. This larger number of complainants added to the growing numbers of people who have joined anti-noise group signifies a recognition on the part of many citizens that something has to be done to “lower the climbing decibel level.”

It should be noted that music complaints outnumbered those for traffic (37.1 percent vs. 10.1 percent). Very likely people believe that authorities can do something to abate loud music but probably cannot do much to lessen the traffic sounds. New York City’s three major airports overwhelm many residents with their noisy overhead jets. Yet, many of these beCenterred residents don’t complain. It could be safely conjectured that this stems from a belief that no actions will be taken to lessen the noise. This also explains why anti-aircraft-noise groups, such as Sane Aviation for Everyone (SAFE) in New York City, report difficulty in recruiting members to its cause.

It is interesting that only 20 percent reported actions on the part of officials that lessened or removed the noise. Thus, 80 percent of the people continued to suffer from the noises. An analysis of the complaints that have come into the New York Department of Environmental Protection over the past ten years yielded about the same percentage of complainants receiving satisfaction after that agency investigated their complaints. Thus, even when people believe that agencies can act to abate the noises, too few get relief. This is an area that calls for further investigation.

That city dwellers were more bothered and, as a result, more likely to complain were expected findings. That women and older people are more bothered should be examined more closely as to the reasons. One could speculate that older people are less tolerant of noises or that with diminished hearing that comes with aging, noises make it more difficult for older persons to focus on what they are trying to hear. With respect to gender differences, the psychological concept of field-dependent/field-independent might explain why women are more bothered by noise. Psychological studies have found that women are more field-dependent, or more tuned into their surrounding environment, while men tend to focus on what they are attending to at that time. Thus, women may find intrusive noises more disturbing.

Worthy of further exploration are the findings that describe the complainants as more emotionally disturbed by the noises as well as having more activities disrupted by the noises. Were these people more sensitive to the noises? Were the noises to which they were exposed more extreme? Would any person of reasonable sensitivities, when overwhelmed by extreme noise, become more perturbed? Clearly this is an area for more research.


As part of its International Noise Awareness Day activities, the Center for Hearing and Communication distributed a Community Noise Survey through its Web site and at events that held on that day. Respondents to this questionnaire identified transportation noises as the most bothersome. Urban dwellers were more disturbed by surrounding noises, and a majority of them indicated that noise interfered with sleep, talking on the telephone, work and study. Annoyed was the emotional response identified by most of the respondents but feelings such as anger, helplessness, and overwhelmed were also frequently mentioned. Forty percent of the participants had complained about the noises, and a majority of these, 62 percent, received responses to their complaints. However, in 80 percent of the cases, the noise problem was not resolved to their satisfaction. Age, gender, national, and community local differences are discussed as well as differences between complainants and non-complainants.


Berglund, B.& Lindvall, T. (Eds.) 1995. Community Noise. Stockholm, Sweden:

Center for Sensory Research

Borsky, P. N. (1980). Review of community response to noise. In Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Noise as a Public Health Hazard (Freiburg), ASHA Reports 10, eds. J. Tobias, G. Jansen & W. D. Ward. Rockville MD: American Speech-Language- Hearing Association.

Borsky, P. N. (1969). Effects of noise on community behavior. In Proceedings of the Conference on Noise as a Public Health Hazard (Washington), ASHA Reports 4, eds. W.D.

Ward and J. Fricke. Washington, D.C.: American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Bronzaft, A. L., Ahern, K.D., McGinn, R., O’Connor, J. & Servino, B. (1998). Aircraft noise: A potential health hazard. Environment & Behavior, 30, 101-113.

Council on the Environment of New York City (1999). Survey of New York City Community Boards: Perceptions and Priorities Concerning New York City’s Environment.

Fay, T. H. (ed.) (1991). Noise and Health. New York: The New York Academy of Medicine

Health Council of the Netherlands. (1994). Noise and Health. The Hague: Health Council of the Netherlands.

Kryter, K. D. (1985) The Effects of Noise on Man. 2d ed. Orlando: Academic Press.

Langdon, F. J. (1978). Monetary evaluation of nuisance from road traffic noise: An exploratory study, Planning, 10, 1015-1034.

Staples, S. (1996). Human response to environmental noise: Psychological research and public policy. American Psychologist, 51, 143-150.

Tempest, W. (1985) The Noise Handbook. Orlando: Academic Press

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Noise Abatement and Control (1977). The Urban Noise Survey. Washington, D. C.: EPA

Zaner, A. (1991). Definition and sources of noise. In T. H. Fay (Ed.). Noise and Health. New York: The New York Academy of Medicine.

Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., is currently the chairperson of the New York City Council on the Environment.

Elizabeth Deignan, M.A., is Senior Research Assistant and Data Manager, Research and Training Department at the Center for Hearing and Communication.

Yael Bat-Chava, Ph.D., is the Director of the Research and Training Department at the Center for Hearing and Communication.

Nancy B. Nadler, M.E.D., M.A., is the Director of the Noise Center at the Center for Hearing and Communication.


Specific Noises by Number of Participants Selecting Them

Specific Noise N %

Car or truck noise, bus breaks, taxi horns 600 92.7

Motorcycles 549 84.9

Airplanes or helicopters 548 84.7

Sirens 545 84.2

Dog barking (and other animal noises) 539 83.3

Horn honking 538 83.2

Car alarms 536 82.8

Loud music 535 82.7

City services (street sweeping, snow removal, trash removal) 515 79.6

Neighbor noises 514 79.4

Garden or lawn equipment 481 74.3

Industrial equipment or construction 480 74.2

Rowdy passersby 444 68.6

Air conditioner, ventilation, compressors 387 59.8

Loud movies 337 52.1

Recreational vehicles (snowmobiles, jet skis, dirt bikes) 265 41.0

Subways or trains 262 40.5

Restaurants 255 39.4

Bars or nightclubs 220 34.0

Recreational activities of others (gun ranges, race tracks, sports stadiums) 217 33.5

Boom cars (Included only in New Mexico questionnaire) 94 86.2


Degree to Which Specific Noise Was Bothersome

(0 = Never; 4 = All the Time)

Specific Noise M SD

Car or truck noise, break noise from buses, taxi horns 2.36 1.17

Loud music 1.94 1.33

Car alarms 1.81 1.82

Sirens 1.81 1.22

Motorcycles 1.76 1.19

Horn honking 1.76 1.24

Dog barking (and other animal noises) 1.73 1.20

Airplanes or helicopters 1.63 1.08

Neighbor noises 1.61 1.23

City services (street sweeping, snow removal, trash removal) 1.49 1.09

Garden or lawn equipment 1.47 1.18

Industrial equipment or construction 1.41 1.19

Rowdy passersby 1.29 1.18

Loud movies 1.10 1.34

Air conditioner, ventilation, compressors 1.06 1.21

Subways or trains 0.87 1.27

Restaurants 0.72 1.06

Recreational vehicles (snowmobiles, jet skis, dirt bikes) 0.72 1.06

Bars or nightclubs 0.68 1.12

Recreational activities of others (gun ranges, race tracks, sports stadiums) 0.58 0.98

Boom cars (Included only in New Mexico questionnaire) 2.66 1.44


Results of One-way Analysis of Variance of Specific Noise

by Type of Community (City, Suburb, Small Town, Rural)

Specific Noise F (3, 584)

Air conditioner, ventilation, compressors *3.67

Airplanes or helicopters **5.90

Bars or nightclubs **8.67

Car alarms **26.53

Car or truck noise, bus breaks, taxi horns **8.80

City services (street sweeping, snow removal, trash removal) **14.32

Dog barking (and other animal noises) 1.13

Garden or lawn equipment **5.38

Horn honking **19.45

Industrial equipment or construction **9.72

Loud movies 0.98

Loud music **6.46

Motorcycles *2.65

Neighbor noises 1.52

Recreational activities of others (gun ranges, race tracks, sports stadiums) 1.38

Recreational vehicles (snowmobiles, jet skis, dirt bikes) **5.26

Restaurants 1.71

Rowdy passersby **13.32

Sirens **17.71

Subways or trains **6.53

Boom cars (Included only in New Mexico questionnaire) 0.30

Significant at the .05 level*

Significant at the .01 level**