Get Ready to Rumble

Singing roads. You know — when they mess up a perfectly smooth section of pavement to vibrate your tires to create rhythm and pitch. Music, or psychological torture? You decide.

Wikipedia informs me that singing roads are, in fact, a thing. No fewer than nine countries have a singing road. Although, I suppose that random pot holes and road debris could have a similar effect almost anywhere. The first singing road was the "Asphaltophone" built in in Denmark in 1995. Kudos for an awesome name.

You are probably most familiar with Honda's Musical Road. It was first installed in Lancaster, California in 2008. The quarter-mile stretch of grooves cut into the pavement recreated the finale of the William Tell Overture (aka The Lone Ranger theme) when driving at 55 mph. Two problems surfaced almost immediately. First, it doesn't sound the way Rossini, or anyone else, wrote it. Apparently when determining the spacing between the grooves, designers did not account for the width of the grooves themselves. As a result, although the famous rhythm is there, the music intervals are profoundly off. Listen for yourself.

Then another problem surfaced, this one from neighbors who complained about the noise. Noisy airports shut down at night, rowdy bars must obey curfews. But singing roads can drone on all day and all night long. A few weeks after it was installed, the road was paved over. But other city residents complained about the road's removal, so a few weeks after that the "Honda Civic" roadway (the road appeared in Honda Civic commercials) was opened complete with the same faulty groove pattern. (It is that new road that you listened to above.) Fortunately, the road is two miles from the nearest homeowners. If you owned property closer and hoped to sell one day, I guess you are just out of luck.

Of course, if you don't remember history, you are doomed to repeat it. Fast forward to the village of Jelsum in Friesland, a coastal province of Netherlands. About a week ago, ostensibly to encourage drivers to obey the speed limit of 60 kph, a singing road using noise-making paint lines was installed. When driving the correct speed, the road successfully played the last lines of the chorus of the Friesland provincial anthem which, as you know, is De Alde Friezen. Here it is at 80 kph.

Brilliant idea! Maintain the posted speed limit! A solution to distracted driving! Very handy in case your car stereo is on the fritz! Worth of every penny of the $99,000 it cost to install! Educational! Patriotic! Wonderful, except, of course, if you lived nearby. The noise was intolerable. One resident said it was worse than the jet fighters at the nearby airbase because "at least they stop at 5 pm." Another resident said it was "psychological torture." Two days after being installed, the singing road marks were stripped off. Undeterred, local officials are currently looking for other ways to revive the project.

Finally, my personal account. A few miles north of me, on a perfectly nice roadway, very aggressive (and nonmusical) rumble strips were cut into the pavement. As a cyclist, they were literally deadly; if you hit them, you would most likely lose control and fall. But it was the noise they generated that really caught my attention. I pitied the poor homeowners living along that stretch of road. You guessed it. They complained and the rumble strips were subsequently removed.

If you live anywhere near rumble strips, musical or otherwise, you have my sympathies. I'm sure the noise is very tiring.