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KEEPING AN EAR TO THE GROUND

Paris will try using sound sensors to fine vehicles causing noise pollution

A black device with three microphones jutting out at angles from a central sphere, and one long microphone jutting out directly below are seen in the foreground in front of a clocktower in the background
Reuters/Charles Platiau
This Medusa device is listening out for noise pollution.
  • Camille Squires
By Camille Squires

Cities reporter

Published

Paris has already taken steps to get cars to slow down on streets, as well as remove them from the city center entirely. It’s now preparing to deploy sound detection technology known as “Medusa” to quiet them down.

On Oct. 12, the city council will vote on a new plan to crack down on noise pollution generated by motorcycles and other loud vehicles. The devices, called “Medusa,” use a combination of four microphones and two cameras to maps noise levels when sounds exceed a certain decibel level, like a motorcycle backfiring or an engine revving. It triangulates the sound and, similar to a red-light camera, uses closed-circuit television to automatically take a picture of the license and fine the driver.

C. Mietlicki, F Mietlicki 2018
View of the “medusa” sensor developed byBruitparif.

The technology is part of an ambitious multi-year plan, first reported (link in French) by French newspaper Libération, to combat noise pollution in residential and industrial areas across the city. The Medusa, developed by noise-monitoring non-profit organization Bruitparif was first rolled out in a Paris suburb in 2019. Starting in November, they’ll be installed in two neighborhoods in Paris as part of a three-month pilot program to test the technology in a real-world setting, but no threshold will be set and no fines will be issued.

Similar technology has been used by police departments in US cities to determine the location of gunshots, but French cities have been pioneers in cracking down on noise as a traffic violation and public health hazard. Mayor Anne Hidalgo made reducing noise pollution part of her 2020 reelection campaign.  Noise pollution is a top issue in France after air pollution. A study (pdf) by Bruitparif found that in the greater Paris region, the health impacts of noise can cost a person an average 10 months of a healthy life, and  July 2021 study estimated that the resulting social health costs from noise pollution—illness, hospitalization, lost years of work—could cost France  €156 billion ($181 billion USD) per year.

Noise pollution is an endemic urban problem

Paris is far from the only place dealing with the impacts of noise pollution. Disruptive noises like the sound of an ambulance wail or a jackhammer against pavement are an aspect of urban life the world over. But it’s more than just a passing annoyance; over time, repeated exposure to excess noise can affect a person’s ability to focus and sleep, and cause psychological and cardiovascular damage.

A 2019 report from the European Environmental Agency linked noise pollution to 12,000 premature deaths across the continent, and found that one in five Europeans is regularly exposed to harmful levels of noise.

Cities have attempted to curb noise pollution primarily through regulation and fines. New York City, for example, sets limits around the time of day construction can be performed. Most cities in the US have broad noise ordinances against everything from vehicles to leaf blowers, but they are difficult to enforce unless individual citizens complain.

Other places have tried to tackle vehicle noise specifically by regulating vehicles and roads. The European Commission has set strict standards around noise emissions vehicle manufacturers, and in 2012 coalition of Nordic countries took on a study to determine how tire materials could make roads quieter. In the US, transportation authorities in Texas and Arizona have experimented with new concrete that make for quieter driving.

But Paris’s proposed noise sensors are part of a larger strategy to reduce noise throughout the city that also includes municipal police enforcement. Separate measures, like reducing the speed limit to 30 kilometers per hour are expected to also help.

The vote on the comprehensive noise pollution plan is set for Oct 12., after which there will be a two-month public comment period.

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