I was talking to a salesman at a music instruments shop in Colombo 10 the other day, and a bus driver on the road in front began tooting the horn so loudly that we could not hear each other.
The annoyed salesman told me that it had become a regular occurrence and added that the private bus system must be overhauled so as to stop it being a public menace. What he said was an opinion shared by many people.
This is a good idea, but it will never become a reality. For one thing, the political will to do this is lacking. Then again, no political measures will work because we fail to see that the problem isn’t merely legal or political, but cultural, because noise is part of our culture and the private bus system with its blaring horns is simply one of the more obvious, and nastier, manifestations of that cultural phenomenon.
We need to deal with this culture of noise. Put ten Sri Lankans in one place, or just three, and see how much noise they make. One can protest that this is an exaggeration. One can also argue that all private bus drivers are not the same. However, it is evident that triggering of deafening noise is an attempt to display one’s power and potency.
For example, do SLTB bus drivers toot their horns as much as their private counterparts? it’s a different thing that fewer SLTB buses are in operation and most of them are dilapidated. How many SLTB buses are equipped with illegal, oversized horns, anyway? Installing one of these horns costs more money. It may not be SLTB’s policy to install such horns, not due to any moral or legal scruples but simply because the money isn’t there.
"We may not have been culturally trained to think of noise as an offence. But we live in modern times, not within a historical time warp"
On the other hand, private bus operators have no such scruples and they often have the money. As said before, many cases can be made against the private bus system, but it’s futile because its very lawlessness is simply another depressing aspect of our deteriorating, wayward culture.
The way horns are used is just a way of advertising its lack of sensitivity towards society, and it isn’t just the private bus system which is reflecting this serious phenomenon.
The culture is both political and legal in its manifestations. Law is intimately tied to the culture. That’s why liberal, societies often avoid the death penalty while more politically conservative or religion-dominated societies demand it. That’s why abortion, prostitution, same-sex marriage etc. are legal and acceptable in some societies and not in others.
Noise isn’t bloodletting. But it affects a sensitive part of the body, of the entire nervous system. If you talk to owners and drivers of vehicles fitted with illegal, extra-powerful horns, you will find that many of them are legally very conservative. They will approve of the death penalty, and even extra-judicial killing of suspected criminals. They will demand harsher punishments for rape, robbery, graft. But they will find nothing wrong with abusing other people’s hearing and nervous systems with their unacceptably loud and excessive horning.
This is one reason why our policemen turn a blind eye to the excessive use of illegally-installed horns in vehicles – and not just on buses, because this phenomenon can be found on motorcycles, three wheelers, cars and SUVs. Sometimes, I have seen them forcibly removing such horns from motorcycles and three wheelers. But I have yet to find an instance of this being done on buses or SUVs.
Then again, it isn’t every owner or user who resorts to this obnoxious practice. One can argue that the reason for this is cultural rather than fear of the law.
We can see that most motorists are extremely well-behaved at all red light intersections, because the police are there everywhere and prosecute mercilessly. But the moment a vehicle stalls or slows down, a merciless cascade of horns will follow, and no policeman thinks of this as an offence. This is because the problem is primarily cultural, as the legality of any given situation has to be identified with a state of mind formed through years of cultural training, habits and education.
Murder is murder everywhere, but the way we look at it, and think how murder should be punished, is different. In ancient times, it was common for people accused of murder to be tortured before being executed. Gradually, the torture was left out but execution remained. Today in the modern world, many cultures have abolished the death penalty for murder, while others still insist on carrying it out.
I still remember a news story I heard about three decades ago. A shopkeeper in Italy, unable to stand the noise coming from an adjoining shop, shot and killed its owner. Having never been to Italy, I have no idea what street noise levels there are like, but from whatI have read, I gather it may be a noisier country than other countries of Western Europe.
Murders are commonplace in Sri Lanka today and are committed for all kinds of reasons. But I have never heard of anyone killing someone else for making too much noise. An argument may lead to murder. But both sides would be making noise in that case. These points are worth pondering and should be looked at as aspects of culture.
Historically, we may not have been culturally trained to think of noise as an offence. But we live in modern times, not within a historical time warp, and it’s about time we began thinking of this problem along socio-cultural lines with the goal of legal restraint of excessive noise as the urban bubble keeps expanding. More streets mean more people making more noise. It’s got to stop, or we’ll all end up losing our hearing, excepting a few living perpetually in luxurious ivory towers.