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Updated 23 April 2014

Neighbours driving you crazy?

Sunday morning, and you’re revelling in a bit of a lie-in. Then your DIY-mad neighbour charges up his new electric drill. Do you have the legal right to tell him to shut up?

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Sunday morning, and you’re revelling in a bit of a lie-in. Then your DIY-mad neighbour charges up his new electric drill. Do you have the legal right to tell him to shut up?

Your home is meant to be a refuge from racket, but, as these true stories from the noise-polluted suburbs attest, peace and quiet are often scarce commodities in residential areas:

I’m kept awake at night by noisy, souped-up 'baffled' mufflers racing through our small town till the wee hours. This constant noise piercing the night makes sleep impossible. I’ve used sleeping pills, sleep with the windows down in summer and a fan on to create white noise. If the cars go past my house, the windows rattle and a vibration can be felt in the walls and furniture. What is the effect on us from being exposed to this annoying sound and the sleep deprivation it causes? There is so much noise to deal with in everyday life now. Much more than ever before. What will it do to us? – Baffled

We invested every cent to get into a relatively upmarket suburb – fantastic until the owner of a construction company built his home on the vacant plot directly across from us. His office staff and labourers arrive before 8am and aside from all the shouting and unpacking trucks, they’ve developed a hooting system so they don’t have to get out of their cars to ring the bell for the gate to be opened. This continues throughout the day as they come and go. While I was pregnant, I couldn’t even take a nap because I’d wake up with palpitations. I’m now overtired, finding myself more and more unable to cope with a newborn who is constantly woken. – End-of-my-tether.

Other residential noises high on the aggravation list: car alarms, barking dogs, the bass thump of loud music, lawnmowers, repetitive noises like a squeaky gate or a noisy pool pump, and endless renovations. My personal worst is the teeth-gritting snarl of the angle-grinder.

Is noise a health issue?
Most residential noise problems aren’t going to cause you permanent hearing loss, but they can certainly impact on your health in other ways. Potential health risks include:

Psychological stress from being woken or disturbed, and the feeling of helplessness that you have no control over your environment.

Increased stress levels, especially if these are sustained over long periods, are suspected to contribute to various health conditions, most notably those of the heart and circulatory system, and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

Studies on people living where they are constantly disturbed by noise pollution e.g. near airports, suggest that these inhabitants may have poorer general health as a result. There’s also increasing evidence that noise has a negative effect on childhood development.

Disturbed sleep, which interferes with the body’s rhythms, and causes sluggishness, poor concentration, depressed mood and irritability. It may also have a range of other health effects in the long term, e.g. a lowered immunity to infection.

What the law says about noise
The law states that you cannot make ‘unreasonable’ noise at the following times:

  • Sundays and public holidays
  • Before 06H00 and after 17H00 on Saturdays
  • Before 08H00 and after 18H00 on any other day than those listed above.

These rules can only be broken if there's an emergency that threatens life or property; or if the authorities have given special permission. In the latter case, the noise-maker should be able to prove this with official documentation.

Sometimes builders take a chance and work after hours; sometimes people simply aren’t aware of the regulations. If your leisure time is being made miserable by noise-makers, talk to them reasonably and give them a chance to mend their ways before calling the local police.

There’s always a subjective component to sound – one person’s music (their favourite Barry Manilow* CD, for example) may be another’s unbearable noise pollution. For this reason, your case will always be strengthened if you get support from other neighbours – both when appealing to a noise-maker or when making a formal complaint to the authorities (usually your local environmental health department).

Good neighbours keep it down
It’s all very well complaining about other people’s racket, but if you want a peaceful neighbourhood you’ve got to set a bit of an example. Here are a few tips, from the City of Cape Town’s Noise Management Programme (and me):

  • Keep TVs, radios and music systems at a sound level where they can’t be heard from the street (at least), and keep the bass as low as possible.
  • Don’t hoot when meeting or leaving friends, and don’t rev engines. Avoid slamming car doors late at night, and pulling up with the music system blaring. Have your car regularly serviced to reduce rattle and roar, and fit a silencer if the engine’s noisy. Keep it calm and steady behind the wheel: high speed, rapid acceleration and deceleration and screeching tyres make our roads much noisier (not to mention more dangerous and polluted). Read more: 12 things good drivers do
  • Don’t leave dogs alone for long periods (apart from the barking and howling, it’s a form of neglect); have a friend or neighbour check on them.
  • Train your dogs not to bark. If they do (and let’s face it, they will), intervene and distract them, preferably getting them inside the house. Serial barkers should be kept indoors at night.
  • Organise another “key holder”, preferably one who lives nearby, for car and home alarms.
  • Ensure your swimming pool pump and other noise-generating home equipment is operating as silently as possible.
  • Try to schedule noisy DIY jobs during the legal noise-generating times (see above).
  • Parties. Yes, you can still have these, but remember your neighbours are legally entitled to shut you down (and up) if you’re too rowdy into the small hours. Midnight (on a Friday or Saturday night) seems to be the cut-off point for a lot of people. Most neighbours don’t mind the occasional party, just don’t have one every single weekend at your place – take the action to a club or restaurant occasionally. Or just give it a rest every now and then. And a polite note circulated to neighbours warning them of an imminent jorl will make them a lot more tolerant.

Crank up the silence
You can form a bit of a buffer against neighbourhood noise by installing more soft furnishings like carpets and curtains, getting double-glazing on your windows, and planting more hedges, shrubs and trees.

No-one should have to wear ear-plugs in their own home, but these can be useful if you have to endure next-door renovations, or you’re desperate to get a good night’s sleep.

* The Associated Press reported a few years ago that the local council of a suburb in Sydney, Australia, played Mr Manilow’s music at top volume in an attempt to deter late-night revellers from a park. In 1989 when Manuel Noriega was holed up in the Vatican Embassy in Panama, US troops blasted him with rock music such as Guns ‘n Roses. Each to their own.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth, Health24, updated April 2014

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