Shoppers' car horns blow up a storm

While the beeping by drivers demanding service outside shops may be good for business, it creates misery for families nearby.

18/12/2009 - Abu Dhabi, UAE -  Ahmed Ali Alyfei has tea delivered to his car after beeping his horn in Al Reehan, Abu Dhabi on Friday December 18, 2009. 
 (Andrew Henderson / The National)
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ABU DHABI // Loud neighbours can be bad enough, but the nightly visitors who jolt Basel al Ogaidi's family awake with their car horns are a nuisance on quite another level. The Iraqi father, who lives on the first floor, has lost a lot of sleep to the honking of horns in the street by drivers summoning the grocers who have stores downstairs.

Mr al Ogaidi, 28, and his Muroor Road neighbours have complained to the authorities, but to no effect. The neighbours want the municipality to ban motorists from beeping for "car service" from businesses in residential areas. Such regulations already exist in Sharjah for shops that are not specially licensed drive-through operations, they said. "We are suffering and the children are crying," said Mr al Ogaidi, who has a baby boy and young daughter. "I'm not able to sleep before 1am and I have to wake up to go to work at seven. That leaves me only six hours of sleep but my children need more. It's not just annoying, it's a health hazard."

Although motorists throughout the capital routinely toot their horns when dropping off laundry, ordering shawarma or stocking up on groceries, Mr al Ogaidi's neighbours believe the problem is especially pronounced in Al Reehan, near Muroor Road and 31st Street. Over the last few years increasingly scarce parking has exacerbated the situation. Tariq, 35, a Lebanese engineer who also lives in a first-floor flat, befriended Mr al Ogaidi while both fathers were out on their balconies admonishing drivers for the late-night disturbances. But pleading with the motorists to stop has not helped, nor has confronting them.

"We go and talk to some of these people the customers and they tell you, 'This is how we are'," said Tariq, who asked that his family name not be used. His wife has been so agitated that she has hurled apples out of the window. "The grocery store has an issue day and night with people honking, and it's very popular for one reason," Tariq explained. "This is the last grocery store you hit before you get on the highway to leave the city towards Al Ain or Dubai. People know you can get car service here."

Motorists visiting the local grocer craving snacks before a long trip can remain in their vehicles as a shop attendant fetches their order. On a Thursday last month around 10.30pm, a reporter from The National counted the cars whose drivers were blowing their horns outside the grocery shop and measured the noise levels in front of the store. In half an hour, a dozen drivers beeped 27 times to buy items such as sweets and water.

The sound meter recorded the horns at between 81 and 84 decibels a level roughly equal to that of an alarm-clock buzzer. Prolonged exposure to 85 decibels and above can lead to hearing damage, according to the US National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Mr al Ogaidi said the horn blasts have frayed his family's nerves. "I live just above there," he said, gesturing at his balcony. "So I can hear everything they can hear."

When the nearby shisha cafe is full and there is a football match on television, Tariq might expect the honking of horns to split the night air every few minutes. "They keep their hand on the horn until the person comes out," he said. "Our windows are double-insulated, but we can still hear it - sometimes until 2am." Police recently warned the shop to close no later than midnight. The owner of the store, who did not want to be named, said it opened at 7am.

"It's like tradition to have people sit in the car and honk for service," the owner said through an interpreter. "We don't feel they're doing too much disturbance and if we don't serve him, the customer will go to another place." The neighbours do not blame the store, but Tariq and Mr al Ogaidi want the municipality to regulate the motor horns and at least suppress the noise. Tariq said he had called the municipality's 993 hotline, the Abu Dhabi Government's 800-555 complaints service and approached the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce to see what could be done. He had no luck.

"The police, when you call 999, they say 'This is not our responsibility, it's the grocery's fault for this honking or you have to get the customers' licence plates'," Tariq said. "So I have to sit down and report all of them?" Abu Dhabi Municipality said it had investigated the problem but found no complaints. An operator with the Government's 800-555 service said there was nothing that could be done to stop the honking, but noted that Sharjah had rules banning disruptive blowing of horns outside businesses in residential areas.

Neighbours said the problem was not confined to their block. Last Monday in Al Zahraa, a procession of cars blasted their horns around 10pm outside a popular tobacco store. The horn of one Toyota Landcruiser was honked 22 times in five minutes. The driver's wife, Noora al Hameli, said sounding the horn was necessary to alert the shopkeepers because parking was scarce and the family was in a rush.

"He [the shopkeeper] knows the order, so we sit and it's not taking time," said Mrs al Hameli, 33, a training co-ordinator. "I understand this can be noisy. I don't like the horns, especially for the children, but this is a big problem and we can't solve it." Another motorist, Salem al Qubaisi, 20, said he bought tobacco from the Al Zahraa shop once a week and was beeping the horn for midwakh (pipe tobacco).

"Maybe somebody he goes inside to buy cigarettes, but many people work here," the Emirati business student said. "So I come and I honk and [a shopkeeper] will come." The racket in Al Zahraa has already forced out Jimmy Saab, who previously rented a flat above the late-night shop. Mr Saab, 50, packed up and moved to Dubai in October, having had enough of the noise. He was also tired of arguing with motorists from his window. "Around Ramadan, they would line up, like a hundred cars downstairs, and they're all honking for tobacco and midwakh and shisha, and they all want it now," the Lebanese-American said.

"The idiot comes in at midnight and the owner's probably about to close and he starts honking until the guy comes out. "I would complain about the situation all over the city because I know that, even if I went to live somewhere else, I would be raising the case again and again."