by Michael L. Betsch

November 5, 2002

A national organization devoted to fighting noise pollution has taken its battle to the streets, to combat loud exhaust systems installed in cars after they are sold.

Noise Free America spokesman Mark Huber says the manufacturers of hot rod mufflers are selling a product that is “lawlessly terrorizing” neighborhoods across America.

The group insists that noise pollution is a serious health hazard. It mentions hearing damage, sleep deprivation, aggression, chronic fatigue and high blood pressure as specific maladies stemming from our noisy world.

Noise Free America recently awarded Flowmaster, Inc., a manufacturer of high- performance, after-market mufflers and exhaust systems, with its Noisy Dozen award, an “honor” given to the nation’s worst noise polluters.

According to Huber, Flowmaster was singled out for aggressively marketing products that bother people and are even illegal in some states. He said Flowmaster and other companies that distribute the noisy mufflers systems specifically boast about the “deep aggressive tone” or “deep throaty rumble” that their products produce.

A diverse cross-section of teens and twenty-somethings are installing the equipment that sells for thousands of dollars.

An article in Flowmaster’s customer magazine, Power Press, acknowledges that there’s a strong demand for loud exhaust systems: “Market surveys continually show…that many buyers purchase a Flowmaster system because of its unique and distinctive sound.”

But Huber said he sees nothing desirable in Flowmaster’s product line.

“For some reason, both fans of after-market exhausts and ‘boom cars’ seem to be obsessed with the lower frequency noises, which can disturb more people at a greater distance in all directions from their vehicle,” he said. “Sounds of a lower pitch or frequency travel further and penetrate solids, such as windows and exterior walls of homes more easily than sounds of a higher pitch.”

Illegal equipment

According to Huber, it is completely legal for manufacturers such as Flowmaster to market and sell their exhaust systems. However, he said, as soon as the car owner installs the equipment and hits the road, that car owner could be breaking the law.

Huber said approximately 40 states prohibit the modification of exhaust systems contrary to factory specifications. Virginia is one such state, he said.

Virginia’s State Code (Sec. 46.2-1049) specifically states, “No person shall drive and no owner of a motor vehicle shall permit or allow the operation of any vehicle on a highway unless it is equipped with an exhaust system of a type installed as standard factory equipment, or comparable to that designed for use on the particular vehicle as standard factory equipment, in good working order and in constant operation to prevent excessive or unusual noise.”

But he said local and state police are lax in their enforcement of the state code in cases where vehicles equipped with noisy after-market exhaust systems are clearly in violation of the law.

Contrary to Huber’s observation, Virginia State Police spokesman Sergeant Morris said the law enforcement officers statewide are cracking down on illegally installed exhaust systems; it’s just that some counties don’t enforce the law as strictly as others, he said.

“Different people have different things that they go after, fortunately or unfortunately,” Morris said. “They have some police officers in Chesterfield County who are sticklers for those mufflers.”

He said Chesterfield County’s local police force writes a lot of tickets for vehicles with noisy mufflers because the devices are not standard factory equipment, nor are they compatible with standard factory equipment, as state code mandates.

However, Morris said judges in Virginia’s county court system often rule against officers who issued tickets for noise violations. “Some will convict, some won’t,” he said.

Assault on freedom

Huber believes that people who purchase noisy mufflers see them as “some sort of extension of their personality that they want to share with the whole world.”

“That’s where the line is crossed,” he said. “That’s where they take away my freedom and they rob quiet off of my property and out of my personal space.”

Aside from being a threat to public safety and an assault on the quality of life, Huber believes the tailpipe rumblings also affect the property values of homes within earshot of the hot rods.

He pointed to studies showing that homes located near airports lose almost two percent of their property value per decibel level emitted by jumbo jets. Similarly, he said, owners of vehicles that produce “aggressive, muscle car sound” may decrease the value of homes.

Noise Free America takes a grassroots approach to noise pollution. It lobbies politicians, even supplying model legislation, to address what it perceives as a health problem.

Flowmaster defends its products

“We have been in the business for over 20 years – and not by advocating that people break the law,” said a Flowmaster spokesman who refused to identify himself to . “That’s why we make off-road products and products for street and emission vehicles as well.”

According to the Flowmaster spokesman, the company designs exhaust systems for “race cars” based on the good-faith assumption that they will be installed on track-based race cars – not open-road passenger vehicles.

However, he said, “People, when they buy their cars and trucks, are free to do whatever they want, to a point. They go beyond that, oftentimes, and get in trouble.”