by Rob Zaleski

The Capital Times
(Madison, Wisconsin)

February 13, 2007

Experts say people who feel bombarded by loud noise often feel helpless to do anything about it. Why? Because police and local governments tend to treat noise as an annoyance rather than as a potential health hazard.

Ted Rueter says it’s time to fight back.

A political science professor at Beloit College, the 50-year-old Rueter has been waging a one-man crusade against excessive noise since 2001, when he taught at UCLA. Dismayed by noise levels on the Westwood campus, Rueter and 14 of his students created a group called “Noise Free UCLA,” which discovered 44 sources of unnecessary noise on the campus. They then held a “Los Angeles Noise Summit” that attracted government leaders and representatives of the Sierra Club and the Green Party.

Buoyed by the response and convinced that large numbers of Americans were as fed up as he was, Rueter started a national nonprofit called Noise Free America, which today has some 1,500 members, its own Web site and 46 chapters in 25 states, including one in Milwaukee.

Rueter, who got his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Wisconsin in 1992, won’t go so far as to predict he’s at the fore of an anti-noise rebellion. But he says there’s no question elected officials are starting to pay attention.

Just two years ago, he notes, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched an all-out attack on noise pollution. But even after the city toughened its noise code – the limit for barking dogs is now five minutes – noise complaints still account for about 90 percent of the calls to its 311 citizen service hotline. (In one recent month, there were more than 24,000 such complaints.)

And in St. Petersburg, Fla., last year, a 64-year-old woman won a lawsuit against a neighbor whose “boom car” was giving her fits. She’s now lobbying to have the state boost its fine for boom car noise from $70 to $350 and to impose restrictions on driver’s licenses.

Boom cars – autos with amped-up stereos – are one of four noisemakers that Rueter’s group has specifically targeted. The others: car alarms, motorcycles and leaf blowers.

Leaf blowers, in Rueter’s view, are among the “most ridiculous” inventions of modern times.

“They’re egregious, they’re stupid and they cause air pollution as well,” he says.

“And the thing is, there are alternatives. One is called a rake. There’s also a device called the Hoover Spin-Sweep, which costs about $100, is battery operated and collects dirt, leaves and dust.”

Though he’s been waging his campaign for six years now, Rueter’s desire to trigger a national movement has actually intensified in recent years. In fact, his goal is to leave academia in the next year or two and establish a full-time Noise Free America office in Madison.

“My goal,” he says, “is to undertake a massive educational campaign. I’d like to have billboards and advertisements and public-service announcements on radio and TV. I’d like to train police departments on how to combat noise and to use decibel meters.”

Crazy as it may sound, Rueter says, he’d also like to initiate a “turn in your leaf blower” program – “similar to what’s been done with guns. Only in this case, you’d get a Hoover Spin-Sweep in return.”