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These could be the sounds of the suburbs

Cat James
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Despite that heart-felt promise declared in his three little words, our Prime Minister has yet to Get Brexit Done. We’re still in the European Union — so suck it up, gammons.

However, for all its brilliant environmental protections — many of which the Isle of Wight directly benefits from, such as clean bathing water legislation — one EU rule I am struggling to support relates to electric vehicles.

With the climate emergency quite literally hotting up, electric vehicles are being promoted as the solution to the impending planetary catastrophe. Of course, electric vehicles are old hat to this country. Sixties Britain had more battery-electric vehicles on its roads than the rest of the world put together, with its fleets of silent sustainable milk floats.

And there’s the rub. You see, without a traditional internal combustion engine, an EV makes no sound. A silent vehicle could easily be considered a potential hazard for pedestrians and other vulnerable road users. To mitigate for this, the EU has ruled that all new types of four-wheel electric vehicle must be fitted with a noise-emitting device which sounds like a regular engine.

What a wasted opportunity. I was sincerely hoping that the increasing popularity of electric vehicles might see a return to quieter public spaces, where people could have a pleasant chat without having to bellow over the intrusive racket of cars. But alas, it seems not.

I’m of a generation that remembers the joy of hearing birdsong in the streets, not just at crepuscular hours, but throughout the day. The birds that have survived to our current times are whistling their happy tunes as loud as they can, but we can’t hear them over the noise of traffic.

And, talking of both milk floats and whistling, how about the trilling call of our milkies, posties, and other delivery folks? When did you last hear someone whistling a tune in the street? I’ll bet it was a while ago. I myself used to be a keen whistler, but what’s the point of tooting out a ditty if it can’t be heard?

One fondly-remembered sound of the suburbs from my childhood is that of me and my pals playing in the street. For many reasons — ‘stranger danger’, computers, fear of death — this art is long lost, along with its accompanying soundtrack of screeching joy as young ‘uns stampede around the neighbourhood making friends and having fun.

So my amended proposal is a simple one. If it’s absolutely necessary to imbue electric vehicles with some sort of noise, let it be a nice organic one. In built up areas only — there’s no point having this feature for places like motorways — let our cars purr gently like a plump and sleepy tabby on your lap, or twitter with a flurry of birdsong. Perhaps the sound of waves on the beach, the jingle-jangle of sleigh bells, or patter of gentle rain on a woodland canopy. How about the jaunty whistle of a window cleaner or postie, maybe even the rhythmic clip-clop of a horse’s hooves. Anything but the sound of an infernal internal combustion engine.

This article first appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on 10 January 2020, and also online.

Cat James

Graphic designer, creative director of Pinkeye Graphics, Isle of Wight County Press columnist, Cat out of Matt and Cat

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