Song of the open road drives Dutch villagers round the bend

Officials removed musical strips painted on the N357 to slow down drivers after locals said it kept them awake at night

Palko Karasz,Yonette Joseph
Tuesday 08 May 2018 13:32 BST
The small stretch outside Jelsum played the regional anthem when tyres rumbled along these raised marks
The small stretch outside Jelsum played the regional anthem when tyres rumbled along these raised marks

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Instead of putting rumble strips on a road in a small Dutch village to warn drivers who veered onto the shoulder, officials installed musical strips.

Workers painted the stretch of road near the village, Jelsum, to “play” music from the regional anthem when tyres rumbled along the raised strips. But soon, the biggest rumbling was coming from the village as residents begged authorities to make it stop.

​Sietske Poepjes, vice-governor of Friesland province, says that officials chose Jelsum for the experiment partly because it was in the provincial capital, Leeuwarden – which has been named as a 2018 European Capital of Culture – and partly because the road, the N357, is long, straight and has a new surface.

“This was not a novelty thing,” Poepjes, says. “This was a necessity for the maintenance of the road. Sometimes people are distracted on the road, and we know people go on the shoulder. We wanted to see how the paint was keeping up.”

Local officials hoped the strips would encourage drivers to stick to the speed limit.

In addition, she says, “Since we’re the cultural capital, we said, ‘Let’s make a cultural event of it.’”

Working overnight at the beginning of last month, road crews painted about 490 feet of a newly paved, 124-mile stretch of the road with the strips.

Poepjes says music from “a popular part” of the regional anthem, “De Alde Frieze” or “The Old Frisians”, from the 19th century, had been painted on. The project cost €80,000 (£70,000).

The coastal province of Friesland, while part of the Netherlands, has its own language. “We don’t speak Dutch; we speak Friezen,” or Frisian, Poepjes says. “So that’s why we gained the title of cultural capital in 2018, and we wanted to highlight that.”

Signs told drivers, “You are approaching a singing road.” When drivers hit 60km per hour (37mph), the regional anthem rang loud and clear.

And if drivers wandered onto the shoulder at a lower speed?

“If you go too slow, it’s the same thing like if you play a normal record: brr-brr-brr,” Poepjes says, imitating a slowed-down record.

And if a driver drove on the shoulder backward?

“You’d get the same thing if you play a Madonna record backward,” she says, laughing.

“It’s basically vinyl on the road,” Poepjes explains. “It’s like grooves on the record, but with literally grooves on the road. It’s a very basic concept.”

But soon, villagers began complaining that they could not sleep.

“The Frisian national anthem is fine, but not 24 hours a day,” Sijtze Jansma, who lives about 600 feet from the road, told the news website RTL. “I’m going nuts. You can’t sit outside and you can’t sleep at night.”

Residents are accustomed to noise because the village is home to an airbase where fighter jets regularly take off and land. But another resident, Alie Tiemersma, told a local daily, the Leeuwarder Courant: “I would rather the planes than this. At least they stop at 5pm.”

Yet another, Margriet de Ruiter, told the newspaper that the noise from the road was “psychological torture”.

Poepjes says she visited the village to hear complaints because officials wanted to be in sync with villagers on the project. What she heard, she says, was that “it’s working – but, please, not here”.

Basically, she says, “They hated it.”

Poepjes says residents complained that a lot of drivers were deliberately veering onto the shoulder to start the anthem. “Enthusiastic young people were driving way too fast,” she says.

Referring to the complaints from residents, she adds: “I can completely relate. They could hear the anthem over and over when they were sitting in their garden; it has been wonderful weather.”

So, less than two days after the strips were laid down, province officials had them scraped off overnight.

The Jelsum experiment is not the first of its type in the Netherlands. In 2014, the city of Oss installed glow-in-the-dark, “smart” highway lanes.

And the Netherlands is not the first country to make roads “sing” in an attempt to improve safety. Denmark, Japan, South Korea and the United States also have musical roads.

Denmark claims credit for the first known musical road, known as the “Asphaltophone”. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, a section of Route 66 rumbles “America the Beautiful”. In Japan, rumble strips near Mount Fuji can be brought to life. In South Korea, musical grooves were installed in dangerous stretches to get drivers to pay attention, including one road that plays an off-key version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.

In Lancaster, California, however, a stretch of desert highway is woefully out of tune. It is supposed to play the “William Tell Overture” from Rossini’s opera when drivers hit 55mph. The grooves in the road, however, were not installed at the right distance from each other, distorting the sound.

As for the Dutch experiment, Poepjes says officials have not totally given up.

“It has been fun, but now we’re in a cool-down period,” she says. “We’re not going to drop the idea completely. If we do it again, we will do it with a complete understanding of the neighbourhood and make sure nobody is bothered by it.”

She adds, “It just wasn’t a good idea in the end.”

© New York Times

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