by Jeanne Wright

Los Angeles Times

October 16, 2002

The proliferation of “boom cars” — vehicles equipped with monster audio systems loud enough to trigger avalanches — has led to growing outrage among residents who are fed up with the noise.

Complaints nationwide from angry drivers who get stuck in traffic next to ridiculously loud, thumping stereos, or from residents whose neighborhoods are plagued by cruisers cranking up their music, have led to crackdowns by law enforcement agencies and warnings from medical experts.

Combating ear-shattering car stereo noise has become a quality-of-life issue that’s being tackled from New York City, where the mayor recently launched Operation Silent Night, to Southern California, where police are ticketing and fining drivers whose blaring stereos disturb the peace.

The problem has become so pervasive that the Justice Department last summer released a report that cited health risks and inability to hear emergency vehicle sirens as reasons to keep car stereos turned down.

But the feds are concerned for even more serious reasons.

“In some jurisdictions, drug dealers advertise by cruising neighborhoods with the car stereo turned up loud,” says the report, written by the department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Long Beach Traffic Sgt. Rich Meyer agrees. He said police sometimes find gangs using boom cars to make their presence known.

The Justice Department report said problems involving loud car stereos are more widespread than has been thought. Because many residents are unaware that they have the legal right to a quiet environment, only about 5% to 10% of people bothered by the noise file official complaints, the report says.

Police recommend that people avoid confronting offenders directly, though.

“It’s an outrageous problem. It’s acoustic terrorism,” says Ted Rueter, director of Noise Free America, a citizens’ group that has called for tougher noise laws and enforcement.

Some cities do have stiffer penalties than California’s typical fines. Drivers of boom cars in Chicago risk having their vehicles towed away and being fined up to if their audio system can be heard 75 feet away. In Papillon, Neb., car stereo owners who blast their music face a three-month jail sentence.

In California last year, the Highway Patrol issued 1,791 citations to drivers who violated Vehicle Code Section 27007. It says it is illegal to have an automotive sound system turned up so that it can be heard more than 50 feet away.

Police in Long Beach are more aggressive: They issued 1,020 citations in one six-month period last year.

In addition to the annoyance factor, thundering high-power stereo systems create “toxic noise” that poses a serious health threat, says Elizabeth Thorp, director of the National Campaign for Hearing Health.

“Twenty-eight million people have hearing loss in the U.S., and about 10 million of those cases can be partially attributed to loud noises,” Thorp says.

Rueter and other anti-noise activists criticize manufacturers of today’s generation of powerful automotive audio systems for promoting a culture of incivility.

They say manufacturers know they are selling equipment that, when used to maximum potential, violates the law.

The Consumer Electronics Assn.’s position on loud auto stereos is that the trade group “strongly supports sound ordinances, as they maintain the quality of life.”

However, the association’s Web site says it also is “concerned about harsh penalties and subjective enforcement guidelines that might have adverse effects on the car audio retail industry and consumers.”

As a result of the 1998 enactment of a tough noise ordinance targeting loud car stereos in Chicago, the CEA says, an industry survey found that local car audio businesses saw an average 33% downturn in business.

Some stereo installers agree that the big sound systems are purchased for reasons other than personal enjoyment.

Tri Vo, manager of Super Sound & Wireless Communication in Long Beach, says many of the young men who go there to get systems installed like the big sound because it “gets the attention of a lot of people — especially the girls. When the vibration is really hard, the whole car rattles and it makes them feel really powerful,” he says.

Noise Free America’s Rueter said one young man told him the sensation is “better than sex.”

Not all boom fans are inconsiderate, though. Vo has a $4,000 stereo system in his vehicle but says he refrains from turning the volume up too high.

Thorpe believes that educating young people and others about the dangers of high levels of noise exposure is critical.

But she’s found that it can be a tough job. Teens often don’t understand, she said, that once you suffer ear damage, you may never recover your hearing.

Jeanne Wright responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St.,

Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: [email protected].