by Mose Wiles

Media by Choice

June 16, 2009

The world has always been a noisy place but today the noise is a byproduct of our leisure, not our industry: the teenager driving his “boom car,” the biker making the scene with his “loud pipes,” even the neighbor who watches the game on his large-screen TV in his backyard.

It’s not a stretch to say noise is a consumer trend that’s hot and getting hotter. Coming to a store near you are the “Hornblaster,” a 150-decibel car horn that can make a grown man leap in fear, the “Rumbler,” a low-frequency siren that can shake the ground up to 300 feet away, and the “Boombox on a pack,” a portable stereo with digital amplifier and coaxial speakers.

If it seems like the Wild West all over again, at least when it comes to noise, it’s because no one’s minding the store. State and local governments are trying the best they can to regulate noise but their authority is limited and their budgets strained. More to the point, trying to regulate noise nuisances like boom cars at the street level is like trying to curb second-hand smoke by wagging your finger every time you see someone light up. It’s a lot of work for little gain.

The only truly effective way to regulate a nuisance is from the top down: leave the smoker alone and go after the companies that try to get people addicted to smoking.

With second-hand smoke, that’s exactly what we did and while we still have a lot of smokers, our cultural mindset about it has shifted. Smoking has become such a phyrric activity that even if you wanted to go around wagging your finger at smokers, you’d have to spend part of your day looking for them in designated smoking areas.

When it comes to Hornblasters, Rumblers, and Boomboxes on a pack, the same top-down approach is needed to change our cultural mindset about such nuisances. People have to stop thinking they’re cool. But we start at a disadvantage because we have no federal platform for regulating noise.

We had such a platform at one time. The federal government in the early 1970s recognized noise as an environmental hazard and created the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but it only lasted about a decade before Congress de-funded the agency’s programs as part of the massive budget cutting effort undertaken when Ronald Reagan became president. It didn’t hurt that the businesses that faced regulation under ONAC were only too happy to see the office disappear.

ONAC is still with us in latent form, because Congress only cut its funding; it didn’t rescind its enabling authority. So, the only thing that’s needed to get the federal government back into the business of regulating noise is money.

It’s for this reason that Noise Free America is pushing the Obama administration to restore funding authority for ONAC. The nonprofit organization makes a compelling case in a proposal it developed called “The American Noise Pollution Epidemic: The Pressing Need to Reestablish the Office of Noise Control and Abatement.”

The proposal is detailed and compelling. The group deserves credit for identifying an action that not only is well within our reach but that would have a forceful impact. Of course, the business interests that were only too happy to see ONAC go away would just as much like to see it stay away, so any effort to get the office re-established will face resistance.

But as we saw with the issue of second-hand smoke, where there’s a will there’s a way. Even the powerful tobacco lobby couldn’t stop what clearly needed to be done. We’ll see similar success here, although it will take work and time, because this is something that needs to be done. People who are quiet today about noise nuisances like boom cars won’t be quiet tomorrow; they’ll see that such nuisances are no longer isolated instances but part of systemic changes that can’t be allowed to take deep root.