by Gregory Arroyo

Mobile Electronics

August 1, 2002

Noise ordinances have typically been aimed at consumers, either through fines or by statutes that allow law enforcement to tow vehicles. In the city of Berkeley, Calif., however, residents who are urging their city council to take additional action against noise polluters, also have their sites on local retailers.

Retailers in and around the Berkeley area say they have been receiving phone calls from residents asking them why they install what the community calls “boom car systems.” They are also inquiring about what legal responsibilities these 12-volt shops hold when it comes to hearing loss and other health-related problems associated with loud car stereos. Most of all, these residents want to know if the car audio industry is doing its part to educate consumers about hearing loss and noise ordinances that cities have employed.

“Berkeley is holding everyone from Emeryville (California) to Oakland and the surrounding cities responsible for what consumers are doing with their sound systems,” said John Draper, an assistant manager for a national consumer electronics chain. “I’ve had people come to the store to ask me why we do what we do. I told them we do what the customer wants.” In Berkeley, the noise ordinance has existed since 1981, but has been amended twice since then. Currently, there is a $104 fine for a noise ordinance violation. In Oakland, police officers have been known to tow vehicles if the owner is caught with his or her music too loud.

Residents Say They Are Tired of the Noise

The issue is in the development stage as Berkeley residents are currently building a case to force the city council there to amend the current ordinance or take some other kind of action to curb what they call “boom car systems.” Already, the group says they have 500 signatures on a petition circulating throughout the city that asks residents if they think the car audio industry has gone too far with car stereo systems. Shirley Dean, mayor of the city of Berkeley, could not be reached for comment.

“The problem isn’t that it exists,” said Ronny Rugato, a Berkeley resident who also serves as the local affiliate for a group called Noise Free America. “It used to happen once in awhile. Now it’s a drop in the bucket and it’s not stopping. Retailers are being viewed as the middle man, and they are stuck in the middle of a debate that is growing between people.”

The organization, which is based in Davis, Calif., is devoted to fighting noise pollution caused by anything from leaf blowers to barking dogs to boom cars. Currently, Rugato is heading up research efforts on loud noise in hopes of building a convincing case for the city council to take action against loud car stereos. Rugato has addressed his concerns with manufacturers, particularly with the way 12-volt products are marketed. Manufactures, Rugato said, have responded by saying they are only responding to their market demographic — 16- to 24-year-olds. Rugato has received similar responses to letters he’s written to retailers as well. He has inquired about what legal responsibilities both manufacturers and retailers have when it comes to hearing loss and other problems caused by loud car stereos. The response he’s received is that there is none.

“The industry is enjoying lucrative cash flow, but they are not being responsible in terms of recommending how these systems should be used,” he said. “I would like to see retailers provide pamphlets that educate their consumers, and take an active role in talking about what one person’s secondhand sound will do to a community.”

Cities Using Different Methods to Fight Noise

Berkeley is not the only city where noise debates exit, as cities across the country are looking for ways to quiet loud systems. In fact, according to the Census Bureau, noise is the No. 1 complaint among Americans.

For the most part, cities have followed what is called the Plainly Audible Standard, which is when law enforcement will cite a noise ordinance violator if the music being emitted from the car can be heard from a specific distance designated in the ordinance. These distances can vary from 15 to 100 feet, depending on how restrictive the community is. Use of the Plainly Audible Standard has been held up in several courts, but the problem has been that violators have not been detracted from playing their music loud. So cities have been forced to seek harsher ways to punish violators.

In a report called “Loud Car Stereos,” the author Michael S. Scott, an independent police consultant based in Savannah, Georgia, gives 13 different methods cities across the nation have used to quiet loud car stereos. The report also contains scientific information about the effects of loud noise.

Municipalities have tried setting specific decibel limits for car stereos, or implemented tougher penalties if the disturbance is taking place in specifically zoned areas, such as schools and residential areas. Others have employed stiffer penalties for repeat offenders, while some have taken a tongue and cheek approach by having offenders listen to music they don’t like.

But there is one method that the industry should be wary of — ordinances that allow law enforcement officers to seize vehicle for loud car stereos. This type of ordinance is nothing new as the industry experienced the effects of this type of ordinance in the city of Chicago.

Ordinances Can Affect the Industry; Just Ask Chicago

In 1996, the city of Chicago passed an ordinance that allows officers to tow vehicles. By 1998, the Consumer Electronics Association conducted a survey of 20 retailers in Chicago to track the effects of the ordinance. What they found is that after only two years with the ordinance in place, retailers reported that sales were off by 30 percent. The report also states that at least three car audio dealers were forced out of business because of the ordinance. This type of ordinance is also spreading throughout Illinois with the city of Elgin passing a similar ordinance last year.

“If you start getting codes that include towing, I can tell you that it will have a chilling affect on car audio sales. In Rochester (New York), for instance, some people started going back to the retailer asking them to remove stereos so they wouldn’t get into trouble,” recalled Eric Zwerling, director of Rutgers Noise Technical Assistance Center, located at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Zwerling, who worked with the city of Rochester as they were writing the ordinance, is different from groups like Noise Free America in that he aims to educate cities on how to implement legally safe noise ordinances, as well as train police officers on enforcement. Zwerling says it’s imperative that the car audio industry get proactive with noise pollution, with the growing number of cities across the nation beefing up their current noise ordinances.

“I’d lay a significant amount of blame at the feet of the manufacturers and how they advertise,” said Zwerling. “Sony has a trademarked term ‘Disturb the Peace.’ Ad after ad, they aren’t saying you’re going to enjoy the finest audio in the your life; they are saying you can annoy the hell out of people.” Zwerling wasn’t familiar with what’s happening in the city of Berkeley, but he says the scenario is similar to what’s happening across the nation with cities becoming more and more frustrated.

“Numerous municipalities have determined that loud car stereos are disturbing the peace and interfering with residents’ peaceable enjoyment of private property,” he said. “Now communities are determined to fight back. And I think that at some point in the future there may be an issue of product liability because of hearing loss associated with this equipment. As ridiculous as that may sound, this is a country where a smoker can sue the tobacco companies. I can easily see this happening.”

Organization Giving Car Audio A Bad Name

Capturing the emotions that cities are feeling is Noise Free America, which is providing cities like Berkeley with information on how to build a convincing cases to get city councils to pass stronger noise ordinances. The organization was founded by Ted Rueter, a political consultant, lobbyist and writer, which has been at the ire of the car audio industry with an editorial he had published on March 27 in 16 major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times.

In his editorial, entitled “Today’s Boom Cars Are Nothing If Not Acoustic Terrorism,” Rueter blasts the car audio industry by equating it to encouraging “the worst elements of sexist behavior and hypermasculinity.” The article made several cities aware of his group and how it can help communities fight loud car stereos. It also painted car audio as an unsophisticated industry that caters to young angst, and at one point says, “Companies that gloat about disturbing the peace should hear from angry consumers.”

On his Website, Rueter provides an online petition that communities can use, as well as contact information to elected officials in communities across the nation. The organization currently has 19 local affiliates spread across the states of Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

Industry Organizations Now Paying Attention

“We’re definitely paying attention to what’s happening,” said Matt Swanston, spokesperson for the Consumer Electronics Association. “We’re currently exploring what else we can do and what we need to do. It had been sort of quiet, but now it seems to be picking up again. Our government and legal affairs department tell me that they are getting more and more calls from consumers.”

The Mobile Electronics Retailers Association (MERA) has taken note as well. Vicky Scrivner, president of the MERA board, said she faced a noise ordinance push last year in the city of Overland Park, Kan., which is where her Santa Fe Auto Sound shop is located. She said the key for her was that her store took a proactive role throughout the process.

What happened was that Scrivner was invited to city hall for a meeting to discuss implementing a sound ordinance. The meeting consisted of the city council, community activists and Zwerling, who was called in to help safeguard the city from future lawsuits. Scrivner described Zwerling’s approach as scientific and said that he was instrumental in getting the city to remove the strong emotions they had toward car audio throughout the process. As for Scrivner, she spent most of the time educating the community about car audio, particularly in the way sound travels.

“The thing about the situation right now is that it is really gaining momentum,” added Scrivner, who said that MERA has fielded numerous calls from retailers that are facing similar problems in their cities. “Retailers really need to be proactive to prevent something like what’s happening in Berkeley from happening. “I think the responsibility should be industry wide,” she said. “It should be the manufacturer, the distributor and the retailer.”