by Ryan Cormier

The News Journal

April 23, 2004

Last weekend’s 80-degree weather was a preview for some Delaware residents.

Sure, there was a taste of spring, but the real sneak peek was at what music is topping the charts.

With the warm weather come open windows in both cars and homes. And with the popularity of loud car-stereo systems, some residents undoubtedly got to hear Usher’s hit song, “Yeah!” whether they wanted to or not.

To fight back, a bill is working its way through the state legislature that would target loud stereos in so-called “boom cars.”

If the bill becomes law, police could fine a first-time offender $125 and repeat offenders up to $500. The bill allows the police to cite drivers if the officer can hear music 50 feet away from a car.

The sponsor of the bill, Senate Minority Leader John C. Still III, R-Dover North, says he expects it to pass the Senate and the House and reach the governor’s desk by the end of next month. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner has not taken a position on the legislation.

The legislation is patterned after similar laws in cities and towns from coast to coast, including San Diego, Miami, Boise, Idaho, and Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

In Delaware, Newark already has a 50-foot “boom car” law it uses to enforce noise levels, especially during the warm-weather months. In Wilmington, a noise-abatement law also allows police to fine drivers if their stereos are heard beyond 50 feet.

“It’s the hottest amendment to a noise ordinance in the country right now,” says Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization based in Vermont. “Communities are adopting it left and right.”

The reasons for its popularity are simple, he says. First, it’s cheap. No sound-level meters or additional training is needed for officers. Second, it’s easy to enforce since police only have to be able to hear the music from 50 feet away.

Last year in Newark, there were 48 citations using the law. There was only one repeat offender, says Lt. Thomas LeMin of the Newark Police.

For activists like Blomberg, it’s a simple solution to a growing (and annoying) problem.

“It’s volitional,” he says of those who allow music to pulsate from their cars. “People are doing this on purpose. When you are sitting in your own home listening to someone else’s music, that’s not right.”

Cultural phenomenon

Noise-pollution activists and those in car audio circles agree on few things, but both sides agree that the majority of the people with specialized car stereos are in their late teens and early 20s. And the music they are listening to isn’t Barry Manilow.

The sponsor of the Delaware bill says it’s a cultural phenomenon.

“I don’t see a lot of 60-year-olds blasting Harry James that loud,” Still says.

Ted Rueter, a political scientist at Tulane University, says the type of music that is shaking the windows and rattling the walls only adds to the problem.

As founder of the advocacy group Noise Free America, Rueter says that he gets complaints from women not only about the sound levels, but the content of the songs they are being forced to hear.

“These people aren’t playing Mozart or Brahms. It’s all rap and that’s only one letter away from rape,” he says. “They are bombarded with misogynistic lyrics from booming cars.”

Kevin Ellis, a 16-year-old from Bear, recently put $400 into his car’s audio system, including an amplifier and subwoofers. He estimates he puts about half of the money he makes from his part-time job at Happy Harry’s back into his Mitsubishi Galant. And he didn’t get the new stereo system to listen to his rap and rock albums quietly.

“If you’re driving down Kirkwood Highway on a sunny day and listening to your system, I don’t see what the problem is,” he says. “I think [the bill] is a bit excessive.”

But Ellis says he usually listens with his windows rolled up out of respect for others. “It’s for me to hear and not the rest of the town.”

Decibel competitions

Loud car audio systems are so popular that there are even competitions nationwide to see who has the loudest. In these “dB Drag Racing” competitions, the cars stand still and face off far from residential areas. (The dB in the name stands for decibel.)

Wayne Harris, the Idaho engineer who founded the competitions, fought off boom-car legislation in Arizona in 1990 and says the proposed law in Delaware is discriminatory.

“The ambiguity, subjectivity and potential for abuse can easily allow for targeting young people,” he says. “Why would you enact a noise ordinance and not encompass everything that makes noise?”

Harris says his group works hard to educate its members about respecting others, and he supports cracking down on people who truly are disturbing the peace. But at the same time, he thinks the 50-feet rule isn’t fair.

“Just turn on your car stereo to a reasonable listening volume, open the windows and then mark off 50 feet,” Harris says. “You’ll be able to hear it. It’s pretty ludicrous.”

Irritation, or an assault?

At Rutgers University in New Jersey, Eric Zwerling has dedicated himself to fighting unwanted noise.

As director of the university’s Noise Technical Assistance Center, he helps train police officers to measure noise. As a private consultant, he has helped cities across the country draft noise ordinances, including those focusing on “boom cars.”

For Zwerling, loud stereos are much more than a minor irritation.

“I believe that boom-car noise could be seen as a gateway crime,” he says. “If you purposefully endeavor in disturbing the peace – an acoustic assault on somebody that goes unchallenged – what’s to say the next step won’t be more aggressive, like physical violence?”

At Audio Works on Kirkwood Highway, just outside of Newark, manager Darren Thomas says calling everyone with a tricked-out system a thug is going too far.

“You’d be surprised who has booming systems in their cars,” Thomas says. “We’ve done state troopers’ cars. Everybody listens to music, but some people just listen to it lou