The beep that's driving me insane

It started with a truck alarm outside my window, but I soon discovered one of the great plagues of modern life

Published October 16, 2013 10:59PM (EDT)

   (<a href=''>Dmitriy Sudzerovskiy</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Dmitriy Sudzerovskiy via Shutterstock/Salon)

Until that morning, when I woke at 5:30 and realized the mosquito in my dream was coming from the street below my window, it seemed to me I’d never heard a backup beep. I’m sure there are neuroscientists who will tell me I’m wrong, that we hear things without really hearing them, but until that moment, the bird-like beep-beep-beep that is now on its way to becoming the soundtrack of our environment had somehow evaded my consciousness.  How else to explain my near-death experience, two days before, when a cable TV van, backing – illegally, of course -- into a crosswalk, braked just inches from my knee and the driver jumped out, screaming:  “Don’t you hear the beep, moron?”

I didn’t. But I did that morning. And when I realized the beep was not going away, I leapt out of bed and opened the window to locate it. Ten floors down, I saw a sanitation truck parked on a private street below called the Washington Mews. If it was here for waste collection, it had yet to announce the fact. Its dreaded compactor was inactive. Smoking and reading a newspaper, its driver leaned against a rear fender. Free for once of the hopeless despair that industrial noise usually engenders in me, not to mention the cultural taboo that equates any sort of noise protest with weakness, old age or lack of patriotism, I threw on a jacket, raced 10 flights down to the street and addressed him in a voice that, because of the beep,  he could not hear.


“Off!” I repeated.  “Can you turn it off?”


For no good reason, I pointed at his rear wheel.  “Is there a switch?  The beep!  A switch!  Can you turn it off?”



“Oh, that.  Sure I can.”  He pointed to a red switch above the rear fender. “Right here.”

“Why don’t you then?”



His eyes spread with astonishment. “Violation!”

Short and stocky, weight-trained arms covered with tattoos, he looked to be in his late 20s.  Obviously, he wasn’t deaf, but if we’re to believe recent audiological research, it wouldn’t take long for this sort of experience – ears about two feet from a sound that maxed out at about 112 decibels -- to make him so. Unaware of his effect on the world around him, living proof that – especially when combined with unconsciousness and contempt for silence – technology can invade any space, any time at any moment, he was the perfect embodiment of the noise problem.

I’d guess his beep was not completely inadvertent for him.  For the moment, it was his identity, his power.  How could this be doubted when a sound he initiated could awaken hundreds or even thousands in this upscale neighborhood? And if it should happen that the neighborhood rose up against him, he was protected by the fact that, like almost all noise pollution, his was elusive and transient and sure to be gone by the time one of the 49 noise-control inspectors from New York’s Department of Environmental Protection could get here, aim his or her sound-level meter at the truck and, if it exceeded the vague decibel limits of New York’s noise code, issue a complaint (no summons or fine) against him.

* * *

I suspect the same neuroscientist who explains how I’d long been hearing beeps I didn’t hear will not be surprised to learn that I have rarely, since that morning, known a beep-free hour or, on bad days, quarter-hour.  On really bad days, it can seem as if there is scarcely a minute free of the beep’s announcement that the wonders of technology are at work nearby.  After all, it’s not just sanitation trucks and commercial vans that aim their beeps at us but almost every commercial or industrial vehicle or machine produced in the last 40 years.

It doesn’t matter whether vehicles have the “obstructed view to the rear” that the Occupational Safety and Health Association -- OSHA -- specified in the initial regulation that produced this epidemic.  Motorized scaffolds beep, cranes beep when their cabs go up or down, vehicles not much bigger than golf carts announce their forward or backing progress for no reason whatsoever.  Even buses announce with beeps that they are kneeling for the handicapped or, in some cases, simply opening their doors.

Since that morning, hearing them all is constant proof that my brain was altered by the sanitation truck. The beep is so much part of my life that, hearing it before I hear it and waiting for it when it’s gone, I can’t be sure that I don’t suffer from tinnitus.

This is not to say the world has not conspired with me.  Later that same day, I heard a beep from the area of the Washington Square Arch that, despite being two blocks from my apartment, seemed even louder than the sanitation truck’s. Venturing out to investigate, I found that it came from a boom-lift that was maneuvering two workers in a small cab who were cleaning the arch with brushes and rags and buckets of soapy water.

I called from the ground.  “Hey! Why the beep?"

“God knows!” replied one of the cleaners. “It’s driving us crazy.”

Only birds in flight or someone levitating above or below the cab would have been threatened by its movement, but its beeps were close to constant and, as I discovered when I walked downtown, traveled through space with such efficiency and volume that on the other side of the park, at least a quarter-mile away, they were almost as loud as they’d been nearby.

Not yet aware how much my new condition set me apart, I turned to a man standing beside me as we waited for the light to change. “Can you believe that?"

“Beg pardon?”

“The beep! Over there! On the other side of the park!”

He did not respond.  Friendly until now, his face took on the paranoid stare New Yorkers show toward aggression on the street. When the light changed, I’m pretty sure he waited to see where I was headed so he could go the other way. Why not? Who would be pleased to converse with someone who would awaken him to what would drive him crazy?

My own denial was not restored by his. Next time I passed the lift, which was still active and, as it would for the next three days, beeping steadily, I found the name of the manufacturer and, back at my office, searched out its phone number online. The woman who answered seemed pleased to hear my voice, but she confessed that she did not exactly understand what I meant by “beep” or, once she did, why it bothered me. Once she’d filled out a complaint form  (“Let’s see — you say it’s noisy?”), she promised to seek out information and get back to me.

She called back an hour later. “Safety,” she said. “It’s a safety thing.”

“For whom?” I said. “The lift is operating in mid-air. There’s nothing above or below it.”

“Yes, but you have to understand that these lifts are also used on ships or in high-rise construction where they move stuff between floors.  People have to know when they’re moving.”

“But what about situations like this, where the alarm has no purpose and can be heard all over the neighborhood?”

“I can see that might be a problem,” she says, “but we have to put safety first.”

“Do they have an on-off switch?”

“Oh no.  Our machines do not have switches.”

“Why not?”

“Safety.  It’s always first for us.”

* * *

Non-electronic backup alarms were used as far back as the 1940s in the military. The version we hear now is typically 4-6 inches wide; 3-5 inches high; 2-3 inches deep.  Four feet away, its beep is rated at 87 to 112 decibels, the former of which is about 12 above the level at which sustained exposure is believed to result in hearing loss.  Activation, set in motion by a wire spliced to the backup light or the reverse switch wire, produces a narrow-band sound that some have likened to the repetitive calls of birds in danger or alarm clocks loud as sirens.

Triton Signal Corp. claims that its founder, Matsusaburo Yamaguchi, invented it.  It entered production in April 1963 and retails today for about $20.  Many alarms we hear these days were probably manufactured by Preco Electronics, an Idaho company, which began shipping them in 1967 and, by the time it sold its High Frequency division (to Ecco Inc., which continues to make them) in 2008, had built and shipped about 20 million.

Most contractors and manufacturers will tell you that they – and their insurance companies – insist on the beeping alarm because OSHA requires it, but while this is an oversimplification of OSHA’s position,  it’s true that the alarm that woke me that morning and the one that announced to a neighborhood more than a mile wide that a boom-lift was moving its cab a few inches up, down or sideways was first mandated by OSHA, one year after it was created during the Nixon administration in 1970:

“No employer shall use any motor vehicle equipment having an obstructed view to the rear unless the vehicle has a reverse signal alarm audible above the surrounding noise level or the vehicle is backed up only when an observer signals that it is safe to do so.”

The ruling was not unquestioned. At preliminary hearings, many contractors, manufacturers and government agencies argued against it for different reasons. Representatives from the Georgia Power Co. maintained that its regulations, already requiring a “spotter to the rear who is more effective than a reverse signal alarm” made the ruling unnecessary, perhaps even counterproductive.

“In our view, the [backup alarm] requirement will reduce our safety effort.” A complaint from Deere & Co. requested that machines such as loaders, tractors, bulldozers and graders be excluded from the requirement “because these types of vehicles are often operated for considerable portion of time in reverse and the operation of the alarm in these cases contributes to excess noise and confusion on the job site.”  Finally, an agent from the Department of the Interior seconded the view from Georgia Power that a spotter was a safer alternative.  “Based upon our experience, [backup alarms] are difficult to maintain and frequently create distracting noise levels which actually constitute a hazard in some circumstances.”

As we know, the people at  OSHA were not –  or not then, at any rate -- persuaded by such argument. Whether those who participated in the vote took into account the thousands or millions of beeping vehicles they were unleashing on the world, the countless sleepers they’d awaken, readers, students and churchgoers they’d distract or construction workers they’d subject to audiological torture, we will never know, but it’s clear that noise was not allowed to compromise the two great American dreams of technology unimpeded and safety (in certain circumstances: We do not require beeps on loaded guns or cars from which the driver may be texting or talking on a cellphone) at any cost.

OSHA records since that time give no indication of efforts to define “audible above the surrounding noise level,” not to mention establish any standard by which the volume and pitch of the beep might be regulated so that, say, an alarm meant to protect a worker in the path of a sanitation truck backing up at 3 a.m. would not awaken everyone in a five-block radius. The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration has noted that backup alarms are the biggest reported nuisance of nighttime construction. They were the single biggest complaint, by far, from those living near Boston’s Big Dig project.

Some vehicles, like the sanitation truck that woke me, have manual cut-off switches, but alarms without switches can be disengaged in minutes by anyone with a wire-stripper. Although OSHA’s first priority is worker safety, neither their records nor those of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health show any sign of concern for workers forced to hear backup alarms throughout their time on the job.

Given its downside, one would suspect that the safety benefit of the backup alarm is inarguable, but such is not the case. For at least four reasons, there is a good chance that a worker in the danger zone of a backing truck a quarter-mile away might not hear the beep that is driving you crazy. First of all, workers will tell you that, when competing not only with other alarms but other machines on the work site, it’s often more disorienting than protective. Second, the pitch of the beep happens to be, in most cases, almost identical to that which most ear protection, also required by OSHA, is designed to mute. Third, despite its proliferation into surrounding neighborhoods and higher floors, the beep is far from efficient at its source. A study by Dr. Chantal LaRoche at the University of Ottawa demonstrated that because its single, narrow-band frequency reflects chaotically off solid material, it may actually become less audible to someone in its path as a vehicle moves in his or her direction. Finally, of course, there is the fact that workers habituate to the beep. How can a sound heard day after day for hours be any more noticeable than the shirt on your back? As far back as 2001, research by NIOSH stated that "commonly used back-up alarms tend to be ignored after long-term exposure.” The bottom line then is that the beep that has so proliferated in our environment that no silence, anywhere or any time, is safe from it can’t be counted on to do the job for which it is designed.

Sad confirmation of this research can be found in accident statistics.  Though not exhaustive, OSHA’s numbers show that between 1984 and 2005, 45 percent of accidents that mention the backup alarm occurred when it was operating. Dr. John Casali, director of the Acoustics Lab at Virginia Tech, has testified in numerous court cases where accidents occurred when the alarm was known to be beeping and the “audiogram” of the worker showed that he heard it even if, like me in the days before the sanitation truck, he did not notice it. Casali has a video he won’t let me see – “because, believe me, you wouldn’t want to” – of a worker strolling idly into the path of a truck whose alarm is beeping and whose engine alone is loud enough to be heard at 90 feet.

Another thing you might assume, given the various downsides of the beep, is that there are no alternatives to it. This is not the case either. The once ubiquitous flagman is still preferred by many safety experts. Another option, manufactured by Preco now, is a video monitor or audible alarm in the driver’s cabin, which is linked to a radar system that detects individuals in the vehicle’s path and, if necessary, triggers an alarm of variable amplitude.  An array of wireless backup cameras are also available to alert the driver.

Though not all that expensive in relation to corporate costs, not to mention the community’s quality of life, economics is probably the main reason this sort of technology is not more widely utilized. There is at least one audible backup alarm on the market, however, which is inexpensive and mercifully kind to surrounding neighborhoods. Brigade Electronics, an English firm, makes an alarm that generates a sound like a quick burst of wind. Some call it a White Noise alarm. On-site workers have reported that it is more easily heard and located than the beep. Since its sound dissipates quickly and is focused on the immediate vicinity, it eliminates proliferating noise pollution. It’s been endorsed, among others, by Les Blomberg, director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Society of Automotive Engineers. New York and Seattle, among other municipalities, are considering it for sanitation use, New York City’s recent noise code accepts it as “community friendly,”  and OSHA itself regards it as an acceptable option.

It should be noted too that some companies, like UPS and FEDEX, which have, respectively, 100,000 and 90,000 trucks on the road, abjure audible alarms and use rear-vision cameras to protect from backup danger. Drivers for both companies are given extensive training before they go on the road and then tracked with technology that monitors how often they put their vehicle in reverse and how long they backed up each time. As a UPS spokesman explained, “Audible alarms give the driver a false sense of security.  We believe training is the best safety precaution. We train our drivers to use their horn when backing.  Since it is not an automated thing, it gets people's attention. We’ve known our lawsuits due to accidents, but even though some have been due to backing accidents, we’ve never known one that had to do with our backup technology. Our motto is, ‘When in doubt, get out.’”

As word spread about my unfortunate obsession, commiseration came from all over the globe. A friend emailed from Bhutan that on her first morning in Paro, she was awakened by a beeping bulldozer across the street from her hotel.  Another called from southern Colorado to say that for an hour or more every day he heard the beep of the loader at his town dump two miles away. Another, calling from rural Vermont, held the phone near the window so that I could hear a beeping bulldozer across the road. “As far as I can see, there is no one on the work site other than the driver,  but I’ve heard it all day, every day, for the last two weeks.”

As noise pollution goes, the beep is fairly low on the totem pole. Even radical anti-noise organizations, like the Noise Pollution Clearing House or NoiseFree America, do not list it at the top of their primary complaints.  Neither its decibel level nor its medical repercussions will come anywhere near, say, aircraft or major construction noise, and as an irritant it arouses nothing like the rage of altered pipe motorcycles, boomcars, jet skis, weather and sight-seeing helicopters or any of the other assaults the world is currently mounting on our sanity.

We know from anthropologists that the human species has been at war with its soundscape since its earliest days, but of course the industrial revolution raised the stakes exponentially, and modern technology constantly refines and exacerbates both our sources of torture and our dependence on them. Playing defense, we write noise codes which (like the recent, tough-minded New York City code) are generally unenforceable, restrict construction hours or the number of sightseeing flights over national parks or set loudness and decibel limits for appliances, vehicles or even aircraft, but as anyone knows who’s lost sleep over a dripping faucet or a cricket under his refrigerator, amplification is not the only reason noise can unnerve, and it always comes at the wrong time because there is never a right one for it.

Still, the beep is, of all noise pollution, the most ubiquitous and, in my view, the most despised. Next time it wakes you or whines in your ear, I hope that before you blame me, or Salon, for making you hear it, you’ll remember that it doesn’t have to be there -- or there, or there, or there-there-there-there -- at all.

By Lawrence Shainberg

Author of three novels -- "One on One," Memories of Amnesia" and "Crust" -- and the non-fiction books, "Brain Surgeon: An Intimate View of His World" and "Ambivalent Zen." Fiction and journalism have appeared in Esquire, Harpers, Tricycle and The New York Times Magazine. Recipient of a Pushcart Prize for a monograph on Samuel Beckett, published in the Paris Review.

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