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Horn OK Please? - Extra-loud car horns lead to growing problem of hearing loss in India

A worker leans over a wall as traffic comes to a standstill on a busy road in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad

STRINGER/INDIA

If you have spent time in India and boggled at the sheer scale of traffic noise - convinced that horns on Indian vehicles honk at a higher volume than those back home - it appears you were quite right.

The director of Indian operations for the German car maker Audi has revealed something of an industry secret: the company designs special extra-loud, ultradurable horns for the vehicles it sells here.

"Obviously for India, the horn is a category in itself," he told the Indian financial newspaper Mint. "You take a European horn and it will be gone in a week or two. With the amount of honking in Mumbai, we do on a daily basis what an average German does on an annual basis."

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Audi, in fact, specially tests its Indian horns - with two continuous weeks of honking.

Honking does not denote anger or aggression, in the Indian rules of the road, but rather a driver's intentions. Transport trucks are emblazoned with the slogan "Horn OK Please" across their back end, to indicate to drivers behind them that they should alert the trucker to their presence (since he will often lack mirrors to do so.)

But while Audi and other carmakers may simply be providing drivers what they need to be "safe", India also has a rapidly growing problem with hearing loss, and traffic noise is causing a significant portion of it. There are laws on the books about maximum decibel levels, but studies continually find these are wildly exceeded. One such look at Calcutta, for example, found a honk every three seconds at key urban intersections, leading to a decibel level above the threshold for human pain. Another study of traffic officers in southern Indian cities found that three-quarters of them had permanent damage to their hearing from working in traffic.

Mr. Perschke's comments did not sit well with everyone: "It's absolutely wrong for manufacturers to do this," Rohit Baluja, president of the Institute of Road Traffic Education in Delhi, told reporters.

While he was dishing dirt, Mr. Perschke also revealed that Audi is making another tweak to car design to woo the high-end Indian market. While the front seat of a car is typically the focus of attention, no high-end Indian car buyer drives her or himself. They sit in the back seat, and that's the part they are most concerned with.

"We are looking at the rear seat comfort and entertainment, to take it to a higher level for India so that you can be more in command from the rear seat," he said.

The Audi India chief was speaking at a Mint Luxury Conference, a venue designed to show off the latest cars, watches, sunglasses and handbags to the Indian elite - a tiny proportion of the country's consumers who are nevertheless big in real terms and growing fast. For Audi, for example, India was the fastest growing market worldwide. The French shoe designer Christian Louboutin opened his first Indian store, in Delhi, last week. And last year the Parisian clothing and accessories company Hermes came to India, with offerings including sarees in its signature print.

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About the Author
Latin America Bureau Chief

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail.After years as a roving correspondent that included coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie moved to Johannesburg in 2003 to open a new bureau for The Globe, to report on what she believed was the world's biggest uncovered story, Africa's AIDS pandemic. More

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