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02 Aug 2021
Chris Torney Chris Torney

Noise camera network could spell trouble for noisy drivers

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Drivers whose vehicles are responsible for growing levels of noise pollution on face large fines if they’re caught by a planned network of acoustic cameras. We explain how this latest bit of surveillance technology works.

The government has responded to complaints about increasingly noisy cars by developing a national noise camera project.

This is aimed at identifying the worst offenders and issuing them with hefty fines.

The Department for Transport (DfT) originally announced a pilot scheme in the summer of 2019.

This saw new acoustic-camera technology installed at seven locations around the UK to see whether it could be effective at cracking down on noisy vehicles.

The pandemic is thought to have slowed progress on a full-scale implementation of noise-camera technology.

But at least one council has now successfully carried out its own test scheme.

Kensington and Chelsea council in west London has successfully introduced the devices. They’ve issued what are thought to be the UK’s first camera-enabled fines for excessively loud vehicles.

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What is a noise camera?

Noise cameras, which are also known as acoustic cameras, have two key components.

One is to help them work out whether a vehicle is exceeding legal noise limits. The other is to identify the car and its owner.

These cameras are equipped with audio sensors that are triggered by cars and other vehicles which exceed pre-defined noise limits.

They also feature automated number plate recognition (ANPR) technology, which can read licence plates to help identify lawbreakers.

It’s already used in the likes of speed cameras and congestion charging zones.

Prior to the trials in the UK, similar schemes have been tested in the United Arab Emirates as well as in Edmonton, Canada.

But the pilot in Edmonton encountered difficulties when it was discovered that drivers were deliberately revving their engines.

They were creating extra noise to trigger the sound monitoring display boards that were a key feature of the scheme.

At the time, no fines were being issued to excessively noisy vehicles so drivers presumably felt able to act with impunity.

 

Noise pollution 'making lives a misery'

When the UK scheme was originally unveiled in 2019, officials said noise-camera technology was necessary to eradicate the nuisance of cars and motorbikes revving their engines.

This was especially true in rural and residential areas.

For transport secretary Chris Grayling said:

“Noise pollution makes the lives of people in communities across Britain an absolute misery and has very serious health impacts."

“This is why I'm determined to crack down on the nuisance drivers who blight our streets.

"New technology will help us lead the way in making our towns and cities quieter, and I look forward to seeing how these exciting new cameras could work.”

Pressure to introduce a scheme like this had been mounting on the government.

Campaigners said that while noise-pollution laws in the UK are adequate, they were simply not being enforced sufficiently by the police or other authorities.

 

Noise pollution and the law

Under existing noise pollution laws, motorists who have an exhaust that generates 'excessive' noise could be in line for an on-the-spot fine of £50.

The police can also demand that the offending vehicle is taken off the road until they reduce noise levels to a more acceptable level.

In Britain, the legal limit for noise made by an exhaust is 74 decibels – roughly as loud as a flushing toilet.

Prior to the introduction of noise cameras, police officers have been expected to use their own judgement to decide whether the limit was being broken.

They don’t as a matter of course carry equipment capable of measuring noise levels.

The government didn’t set a pre-arranged level at which noise cameras in its trial would be triggered.

But those used in the London scheme were calibrated to catch offenders who generated 80 decibels or more. This is about as loud as an alarm clock.

This is a similar approach to speed cameras that allow some small margin for error before they are triggered.

When announcing its scheme, the DfT referred to studies that had demonstrated exposure to noise might have highly negative impacts on people’s physical and mental.

Research suggests that noise pollution can play a major role in issues ranging from heart attacks and high blood pressure to stress and type-two diabetes.

Campaigners have been particularly keen for the government to clamp down on the noise generated by a minority of motorbike owners.

As the pilot scheme was launched in 2019, Tony Campbell, chief executive of the Motorcycle Industry Association (MIA), said:

“With growing pressure on the environment, including noise pollution, illegal exhausts fitted by some riders attract unwanted attention to the motorcycle community and do nothing to promote the many benefits motorcycles can offer.

“All manufacturers produce new motorcycles that follow strict regulations regarding noise and emissions and we welcome these trials as a potential way of detecting excessive noise in our community.” 

 

A successful noise-reduction scheme in London

In late 2020, the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea launched its own noise-camera pilot scheme after being unable to join the original DfT programme.

Officials said this followed 35 official complaints of excessive noise relating to engines revving between June and August 2020.

Councillors said that, in particular, Chelsea’s Sloane Street was a “magnet for Lamborghinis and Ferraris”, with drivers using the road to cruise and rev their engines.

Councillor Johnny Thalassites said:

“Residents have had enough of drivers using our streets as a racetrack.

“We have had fines in place for a while now, but this new noise camera technology will make sure we are catching more of the worst offenders.

“Supercars look good and most drivers are considerate but when they they’re not, it is disruptive and irritating for people living and working in the area.”

Kensington and Chelsea had previously introduced a Public Space Protection Order. This gave its officers the right to issue penalty notices for excessive vehicle noise.

During last year’s pilot, the cameras were triggered almost 2,000 times. The council has now issued 163 fines and a further 69 warnings to drivers of noisy vehicles.

Fines range from £100 to £2,500, and the council has the powers to seize the vehicles of persistent offenders.

Officials also said that its cameras were not just triggered by anti-social exhausts.

They also identified the likes of emergency vehicles such as ambulances and fire engines, as well as heavy goods vehicles (HGVs). These vehicles would not typically face penalties for noise.

The success of the pilot means that the scheme has since been extended to other parts of the borough.

Thalassites added:

“Piloting new noise camera technology last year has helped us catch more of the worst offenders.

“We are now getting data with cameras in other parts of the borough to see how big this problem is and what more we can do to protect residents and workers from disruptive noise and anti-social driving.”

 

Impact on insurance for noisy cars

Drivers who modify their cars by adding powerful new exhausts could face major implications for their car insurance – as well as running the risk of being caught by new acoustic cameras.

Adding modifications to a car that make it more powerful or more valuable could lead to higher car insurance costs. This is before they’re potentially more attractive to thieves as well as more expensive to repair.

But the consequences could be even more drastic. Owners who make major modifications without telling their policy provider could face having claims rejected out of hand.

Most motor insurance policies require drivers to inform their insurer as soon as possible if they’re having any significant modifications carried out.

It’s a good idea to speak to your insurer before authorising this kind of work.

That way, you should know whether or not you’ll have to pay a higher premium. And you should have the peace of mind of knowing that you’re still fully insured.

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