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Photo credit: Joe Mabel licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article by Jill Lightner, The Seattle Times, discusses noisy restaurants in the Seattle area. Lightner reports that indeed restaurants have gotten louder, and discusses some of the reasons why. She also reports that when people contact her, their most common request isn’t for a good restaurant, or an exciting new one, but for a quiet one.

This isn’t a new complaint. In the last few years, Zagat surveys document restaurant noise as the first or second most common complaint, alternating with poor service depending on the city and the year.

If the markets don’t provide what people really want, that’s an example of what the economists call market failure. Government intervention by laws and regulations is necessary.

To those of us old enough to remember when smoking was allowed in restaurants, the issue of restaurant noise is akin to smoke-filled bars and restaurants. In fact, people have stated, “noise is the new secondhand smoke.”

In those ancient days, most people wanted smoke-free restaurants, but the tobacco lobby falsely pushed claims of smoking as a personal liberty issue, and those who complained were viewed as selfish, neurotic, or un-American. Finally, a combination of continued public pressure and the EPA determination that secondhand smoke was a Class A carcinogen, with no safe lower level of exposure, did lead to laws and regulations banning smoking indoors. We all live more comfortable and healthier lives as a result.

Similarly, noisy restaurants are an example of market failure.

Lightner wrongly states in her article that auditory damage begins after two hours exposure to 90 decibel (dB) sound. But, in fact, the only safe noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss is 70 dB time-weighted average for a day, and it’s mathematically impossible to achieve that exposure level after two hours at 90 dB. As this article notes, most American adults get exposed to enough noise in everyday life to cause hearing loss. The article adds that the auditory injury threshold is 75 to 78 A-weighted decibels.

You don’t need expensive equipment or even a sound meter app on your smartphone to measure this. If you can’t carry on a conversation without straining to speak or to be heard, the ambient sound is above 75 dBA and your hearing is at risk.

Quieter restaurants aren’t just a matter of being able to converse with your dining companions.  They are an issue of auditory health.  Ask your elected officials at the local, state, and national level to enact legislation to require quieter restaurants.