Back-up beepers. The soundtrack we want to stop hearing

You won’t hear them when you should, but you will when you don’t want to, all the time! You’ve guessed right, I’m talking about the back-up beepers…

Back-up beepers are presented as a safety measure, and as such, most people have a problem arguing with them. Because who wants to go against safety, right? I’m definitely all in when it comes to safety, at work, in our cities and anywhere possible. But studies show that back-up beeper do a really poor job when it comes to avoiding accidents, yet they’ve become the non-stop soundtrack in almost all neighborhoods within our cities.

When was the Back-up beeper invented?

The backup beeper was first invented in 1963 in Japan, and was introduced to the US shortly after in 1967. It’s initial intent was to avoid accidents in construction sites. In other words, to alert construction workers when a big piece of machinery was maneuvering or advancing backwards.

Some vehicles, like bulldozers or backhoes rarely leave the construction site, but others, such as trucks are constantly moving to and from it, through our highway, roads and streets. That means that as soon as back-up beepers started to be installed in those kind of vehicles, we started hearing them everywhere almost immediately.

At that point back-up beepers quickly became out of control. If large construction trucks has to be equipped with one, shouldn’t large non-construction trucks have one too? And if so, shouldn’t medium trucks incorporate one as well?

You can see how the back-up beeper spreader and very quickly escaped the construction site environment for which it was initially designed for.

Which vehicles need to have a Back-up beeper?

Even to this day, the regulations I could find on this matter only refer to construction vehicles. Take the California Code of Regulations for example, which states that vehicles “used to haul dirt, rock, concrete, or other construction material shall be equipped with a warning device that operates automatically while the vehicle is backing.”.

However, there is no law that says that other types of vehicles, smaller, non-construction related, cannot incorporate a back-up beeper as well. And here is were a big part of the problem relies. Because like I said at the beginning, we are all in favor of safety, so if other vehicles want to incorporate this feature, why not, right?

Even regulators, when asked for clarifications on this matter, choose to stay on the safe side, expanding the cases in which a back-up beeper should be used to any vehicle with an “obstructed view of the rear”, which according to John B.Miles Jr, Director of the Directorate of Fields Operations, could include any vehicle with

“obstacles as any part of the vehicle such as structural members, its load (gravel, dirt, rip-rap), its height relative to ground level viewing, damage to windows or side mirrors, etc. used for rearview movement of the vehicle; in addition, it could include restricted visibility due to weather conditions such as heavy fog; or work being done after dark, without proper lighting.”

John B.Miles Jr, Director of the Directorate of Fields Operations

Does this mean every single car needs a back-up beeper if we want to reverse-park at night?

How loud are Back-up beepers?

As mentioned back-up beepers were designed for construction sites. Construction sites tend to be noisy by nature, and the alert of the back-up beeper had to be heard over that ambient noise. So they are loud.

The typical backup alarm emits a pure tone of 1000Hz at 97 to 112 dB. That is more than a vacuum cleaner, a lawn moaner, a kitchen blender, and even a car horn, which is only supposed to be used to prevent an imminent accident.

It goes without saying, but 97-112 db is way beyond the long-term hearing loss threshold of 70 dB.

Why Back-up beeper aren’t effective

On paper they should be, but in reality not so much. There are a couple of reasons why backup alarms are not as effective as we all wished for.

The first reason has to do with the nature of the sound they produce. Without going into the physics of it all, let’s just say our ears and brains have a hard time determining were the type of sound produced by backup alarms comes from (direction) and how far away it is (distance). This two variables are key to prevent accidents, however these alarms do a poor job at communicating them to us, the people who they should be protecting.

The second, and arguably more important reason, is that we’ve grown so accustomed to hearing these beepers that we usually tune them out. This is known as the “Cry Wolf Effect”, which occurs when people don’t react to alarms after frequently hearing false alarms.

It’s the same phenomenon that we usually experience with kids who will claim to not feel well in order to not go to school. After seeing them happily playing just a few minutes after deciding to keep them at home, parents will learn to ignore their kids complains and send them to school regardless of how they claim to feel, even when their kids are truly ill.

Some promising alternatives to Back-up beepers

There are some alternatives to the annoying, not-so-effective back-up beepers, but there are two which seem to make more sense. These are:

Reverse emergency braking

There are many vehicles which already come equipped with emergency breaking. This means the car will use it’s sensors to detect objects around it, and when one of this objects becomes dangerously close it automatically breaks to avoid the accident.

However, this feature currently only works when the vehicle is moving forward. Expanding the functionality so that the emergency breaking would also kick in when reversing could be a solution that made back-up alarms unnecessary.

Now, if you know how politics work, you might already see an issue with this solution. The responsibility has been transferred from the victim, to the driver, and/or the vehicle manufacturer. If an accident does occur, even with the emergency braking option in place, the vehicle manufacturer could be sued.

With the alarm solution the reasonability is placed on the potential victim, who is responsible for noticing the alarm and responding to it. That is why the second alternative is probably spreading quicker.

Back-up white noise alarms

Like mentioned earlier in this article, our ears and brains are not very good as processing the sound of traditional back-up beepers. We have a hard time distinguishing where the sound comes from and how far away it is.

Studies have shown that replacing the beeping sound for white noise can be more effective. Our brains find it easier to determine which direction the sound is coming from and how far away it is, therefore allowing us to better judge if the danger is imminent or not.

Another advantage of white noise back-up alarms versus their beeping counterparts is that their sound does not propagate as far, making it less annoying, or at least annoying for less people.

Some Amazon delivery vans have already started incorporating these new type of alarms, which you can listen to in the video below.

Guillermo Carone. Author at Fight for Silence
Hi there! My name is Guillermo Carone, I’m an architect and urbanist by training, and I’ve been on a quest against noise since 2010, when I moved from the calm and quiet Barcelona, to the vibrant and noisy New York City. I have a special interest in how cities evolve and how to keep them a place for society to thrive.

2 responses to “Back-up beepers. The soundtrack we want to stop hearing”

  1. Jules James says:

    OH! Can you create a “Noise Tourist” city list? Bitch-moan all we want about the idiotic single-tone construction back-up beepers, but much better is to give folk a chance to experience urban life without such annoyances.

  2. […] create noise in a number of ways. It’s not only traffic, but also unnecessary horning, back-up beepers, alarms and more. Sacramento’s noise ordinance takes this into account. For example, a police […]

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