Even mild traffic noise has an adverse effect on work performance: Study

May 20, 2023

Washington [US], May 20 : Chalmers' Division of Applied Acoustics researchers conducted a laboratory investigation in which test subjects were subjected to concentration tests while being exposed to background traffic noise. The individuals were asked to stare at a computer screen and respond to specific letters before rating their perceived workload. According to the study, the individuals performed much worse on the performance test and felt that the task was more difficult to complete with road noise in the background.
"What is unique about our study is that we were able to demonstrate a decline in performance at noise levels as low as 40 dB, which corresponds to the regular noise level in an office environment or a kitchen," says Leon Muller, Doctoral student at the Division of Applied Acoustics in the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering.
The background noise consisted of two audio sequences simulating trucks passing by at a distance of ten and fifty metres. Both sequences were normalised to the same total indoor level of 40 dB.
"The audio sequence simulating the closer passages, where the sound changes significantly as the vehicle passes by, was usually the one that bothered the test subjects the most," Muller says. "This could be because traffic that is further away is perceived as a more constant drone."
Housing is built closer to roads now
The new results emphasise an already problematic situation of negative impact on health and job performance due to traffic noise. In recent years, the distance between roads and newly built housing in Swedish cities has been allowed to shrink - a trend that can also be seen internationally.
Put somewhat simplistically, the Swedish regulations for where construction is permitted are based on the average outdoor noise level over a 24-hour period - meaning that they do not take individual pass-bys into account. In addition, current regulations do not cover the peaks of low-frequency noise indoors, which is difficult to avoid and is, according to research, more disruptive and therefore more impacting on human health.
In one study modelling low-frequency noise, Jens Forssen, Professor of applied acoustics at Chalmers, showed that such noise is primarily generated by heavy traffic at low speeds, and is difficult to shut out even with well-insulated windows and buildings that comply with all the construction norms and guidelines for sound insulation.
Reduced vehicle speed can increase the noise exposure indoors
"The calculations for different types of facades show that it is difficult to achieve ideal indoor sound environments near heavily trafficked roads," Forssen says. "Reducing speeds is not a solution, as our calculations show that the indoor noise exposure can even increase at lower speeds."
Further, Forssen says that noise and the sound environment are a factor that is often considered too late in the planning process, and that there are advantages that could be achieved if adjustments were made in order to better utilise the space in terms of noise pollution.
The researchers also agree that the most effective solution would be to avoid urban densification in areas where traffic noise would have too great an impact on health and wellbeing.