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City dwellers learn to expect a certain amount of ambient noise. The rumble of moving streetcars or subway trains, the rush of passing traffic, the clamour of the schoolyard, the din of heavy construction − it’s the background music of urban life. But unnecessary, obnoxious noise is another matter. There is far too much of it in Canadian cities, drowning out conversation, disturbing quiet neighbourhoods and putting us all on edge.

The guy in the huge pickup with thrumming engine is disregarding everyone else when he roars down the street, rattling windows as he goes. So is the motorcyclist with the modified super-loud exhaust pipes, the landscaper who fires up his howling leaf blower on a weekend or the handyman who runs his screaming electric saw at all hours.

So it’s good to see that some cities are waking up to the problem. Edmonton is trying out a sound-trap system that captures the noise of offending vehicles and records images of the vehicles at the same time. Vancouver police warned last summer that they would be issuing tickets to drivers with excessively loud cars or motorcycles. Westmount in Montreal has imposed limits on the use of leaf blowers, allowing them only at certain times of the year. Now John Tory, Toronto’s mayor, is asking city officials to see what they can do about drivers of noisy vehicles.

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In a letter to the head of licensing and standards, he says the noise “is disturbing people in their homes, during the day and at night, it is disrupting business and it is having a negative impact on tourists, all in the apparent cause of feeding the egos of inconsiderate people.” Exactly. The driver who deliberately adapts his vehicle to make noise isn’t just saying “look at me;” he’s saying “to hell with you.” It’s thoughtless and it’s rude. Living in a city, with everyone pushed together in limited space, calls for a basic level of civility. What could be less civil than assailing your fellow residents with a barrage of sound?

Broadly speaking, cities have become much more pleasant places to live in recent decades. The air is easier to breathe since industries started evolving and moving out of urban cores. Modern cars produce less polluting emissions. The water in lakes, bays and streams is cleaner. The noxious smells that used to make city dwellers reel have mostly gone away, along with the horses, the slaughterhouses and the dirty factories. Noise pollution has probably diminished, too. Cars and planes are quieter, for example. But all this progress only makes the remaining annoyances stand out. Gratuitous noise is one of the worst.

The trick with any push against noise polluters is enforcement. The rules are pretty clear on paper. Toronto’s municipal code states that “No person shall make, cause or permit noise or vibration, at any time, which is likely to disturb the quiet, peace, rest, enjoyment, comfort or convenience of the inhabitants of the City.” It covers everything from loud music and persistent barking to honking horns and “banging, clanking, squealing” vehicle sounds. But how do you catch noisemakers in the act and how do you prove the noise was excessive? Busy police have other, more important things to do than go after noisy cars or raucous machines and there usually aren’t enough bylaw officers to tackle the problem.

That’s why changing attitudes is as important as catching violators. People who wouldn’t dream of emptying a trash can onto the street think nothing of polluting the soundscape with blaring music or engine noise. Whatever happens to Mr. Tory’s effort to address noise though the bylaw system, he is right to call out these shameless noise polluters. One idea he has talked about is putting decibel readouts at key points in the city, much like speed readouts in school zones. That at least would send a message to passing noisemakers: too loud, friend, too loud.

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