Perceived rates of social disorder (from ABS data)

Almost 60% of Australian adults reckon there’s at least one social disorder issue in their local area. Top of the list are concerns about noisy vehicles, dangerous driving, rowdy behaviour and offensive language.

These findings are from the latest release of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) national Crime Victimisation Survey. It was conducted from July 2010 to June 2011. A total of 16,861 respondents answered the questions on social disorder.

The most “socially ordered” places according to the people who live there are South Australia and the ACT. But the “most disordered” is unquestionably the Northern Territory. It’s much the same on noisy and dangerously-driven vehicles as elsewhere, but scores very badly on a swag of other questions, with double the national average on public drunkenness and being insulted, pestered or intimidated in the street.

The ABS asked those who identified a concern to rank each one according to its importance. When only those issues regarded as of Large or Moderate concern are considered, the gap between the Northern Territory and the rest of Australia gets even larger. For example, almost four times as many Territorians see public drunkenness in their local area as a matter of Large or Moderate concern as Australians as a whole.

What really grabbed my attention, though, was that a third of adult Australians reckon noisy vehicles are a concern and a fifth say it’s a Large or Moderate problem for them. I find it staggering that what could be in the order of 4–7 million people (including children) experience this problem on an ongoing basis.

The ABS report comes on the same day the Sydney Morning Herald reports the federal Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, has written to state governments advising them of proposed guidelines to limit further residential developments across Australia in areas that could be affected by aircraft noise. Even after 40 years of analysis, Sydney hasn’t even been able to get itself a second airport because of noise.

Yet noise from trucks, buses and “hot” cars and motor cycles is a constant source of pollution for many Australians. It’s hard enough to enjoy a coffee at a sidewalk café when the conversation is interrupted by a bus or a Harley-Davidson roaring by, but it must be hell to be woken up by a screeching Kawasaki in the middle of the night.

These imposts might be tolerable if there were no alternative, but of course there is. Quieter buses and garbage trucks are available commercially and used in other places. They might cost more to buy and/or operate, but that’s a price worth paying to enhance the quality of peoples’ homes and the community’s public spaces. Both Sydney and Brisbane would be vastly more attractive places if those legions of buses were a lot quieter.

However there’s no social value whatsoever in hot cars and noisy motorcycles – they’re entirely selfish. Governments have failed monumentally to regulate and police these vehicles. Either the standards are too weak, the penalties are too low, or the odds of getting caught are too long – I suspect it’s mainly the latter but it wouldn’t surprise me if all three are implicated.

Noise isn’t an isolated issue – there’re linkages with other arms of policy. More and more people want to live in accessible locations, necessarily at higher densities. The trouble with noise is residents respond by closing their apartment windows and installing electricity-intensive refrigerated air-conditioning units.

Noise is also a health issue. I don’t know how objective this account on Wiki is, but it paints a pretty bleak picture:

The social costs of traffic noise in EU22 are over €40 billion per year, and passenger cars and lorries (trucks) are responsible for (the) bulk of costs. Traffic noise alone is harming the health of almost every third person in the WHO European Region. One in five Europeans is regularly exposed to sound levels at night that could significantly damage health.

One aspect of the ABS study that surprises me is 15% of the sample say noise from neighbours is a concern and 7% say it is of Large or Moderate concern. They’re large numbers, but I expected them to be higher. It might be Australians make reasonably considerate neighbours or it might be we’re a pretty tolerant bunch.

Or it might be we avoid living in areas where we think the neighbours could be unreasonably noisy (if we have the option). That might be one reason why so many Australians live in detached houses in the suburbs. Or as with traffic noise, maybe all those refrigerated air-conditioners mean we don’t have to hear the neighbours any more.