by Matthew Artz

Berkeley Daily Planet

November 12, 2002

Berkeley may lower the boom on car stereo systems that some residents say have gotten out of hand. On Tuesday, City Council will consider a proposal from Mayor Shirley Dean to toughen the city’s laws against noise pollution. The proposal would enable police to go after those who drive with their supped-up stereos on full blast and possibly impose fines.

“I really want the city to put a stop to it,” said Dean, who added that she can sometimes hear car music from her fifth floor office downtown.

Dean said the excessive car stereo noise has gotten worse in recent years, and the city’s current noise ordinance is vague and hamstrings police from ticketing offenders.

The call for tougher laws comes amid increasing evidence that excessive car stereo noise can cause health problems, according to the mayor’s report.

Repeated exposure to boom stereos not only brings hearing loss, but can lead to insomnia, high blood pressure, irritability and learning difficulties in children, explained Mychelle Balthazar, a public health specialist with the Deafness Research Foundation.

Technological advances, despite health concerns, have allowed companies to offer consumers more powerful systems at more affordable prices.

At a 2001 national car stereo competition in Kansas City Mo., the winner reached 174 decibels — about eight times louder than the sound of an airplane, said Ted Rueter, director of Noise Free America.

A 2001 report by the Justice Department says that noises louder than 80 decibels can damage hearing.

According to a salesman at Creative Car Sterel in Lafayette, a high-powered car stereo costs about $4,000 and can reach 130 decibels, about half the price of a comparable system five years ago.

High decibel levels are only part of the problem, Rueter said. Many car stereo systems now include technology that can produce sounds with such a low base frequency that the resulting thumping can cause buildings to vibrate.

“It’s acoustic terrorism,” he said, noting that the 2000 U.S. Census report listed excessive noise as the number one complaint among Americans.

In Berkeley, most complaints against boom stereos are made by residents near James Kenny Park in west Berkeley. In May, Ronald Rugato, who lives near the park collected about 200 signatures for a petition asking city officials to crack down on stereo noise.

“Young men are empowering their vehicles with $3,000 watts of subwoofer equipment, making houses shake and assaulting people with their second hand sound,” he said.

A Berkeley police study found that in January 2002 residents filed 35 complaints of boom car stereo noise.

But according to a city manager’s report, Berkeley law gives police few tools to cite the offenders.

Presently, the law requires that before police take action, a citizen must identify the culprit and that the noise be intentional and reach a specific volume level. Because the offender is usually in a car, police can have difficulty locating the noise source.

Dean said she would like the ordinance changed so police could take more initiative in the enforcement of noise laws. She suggested that first-time offenders be given a brochure explaining the risks involved with excessive noise and that multiple offenders receive fines.

Her proposal is relatively tame compared to the actions of other cities. Since passage of a 1997 law, Chicago drivers risk having their car towed and a $615 fine if their car stereo can be heard from 75 feet away. Drivers in Popalion, Neb. who violate the same restriction can face up to three months in jail.

Not all Berkeley residents find boom stereos a problem. “As long as the driver is passing by and not sitting in front of the house, let them enjoy their music,” said Tamira Chappell, who lives across from James Kenny Park.

Dean’s proposal asks staff to review ways to toughen Berkeley’s ordinance and return the issue to council within four months.