by Gregory Arroyo

Mobile Electronics

May 1, 2003

When Suzanne Babb’s De Queens, Ark.-based shop became the center of noise complaints three years ago, she employed lighthearted tactics to quiet down the community chatter.

Using the slogan “Practice Safe Sound” the owner of Advanced Audio kicked off a campaign at her store to educate her customers about the local ordinances in town, which governed everything from noise to neon lighting.

Babb also approached the city council with a letter she requested from the Mobile Enhancement Retailers Association, which she said gave her store credibility. She also suggested a change to the city’s noise ordinance that would set stricter guidelines. Although the council never considered her amendments to the ordinance, Babb was able to remove her store from the spotlight and she hasn’t heard anything since.

“Too many times I read these stories about noise problems where you have a community group pitted against car audio shops,” she said. “The reason why we were successful was because we tackled the problem head on and we maintained a good relationship with our customers and our community.”

Noise ordinances are nothing new, but singling out 12-volt retailers and installers appears to be the new strategy environmental groups have adopted in their fight to turn down the noise. Joe Boston, director of the RITOP school for mobile electronics, knows something about that. His school became the focus of a Boston Globe article in September 2002. The article was published after the school was identified by Noise Free America as a contributor to noise pollution.

“My understanding was that they targeted us on their Website, which was picked up by the Boston Globe,” said Boston. “Noise Free America was flagging us as noise polluters for training installers. I think what they are doing is making a big stink so they can get some press.”

Making the “Noisy Dozen”

Noise Free America brought attention to RITOP after it named the school to the group’s “Noisy Dozen,” a list that also includes the name of former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura. The former wrestler was singled out by the organization’s local chapter for blasting his 10-speaker sound system at the state Capitol building. California Governor Gray Davis is also on that list after he signed into law a bill that made it more difficult for law enforcement to cite car owners with aftermarket exhaust systems. Twelve-volt companies like Directed Electronics and Circuit City are also named.

This dubious distinction is given out each month to those that cause or allow for the one thing that irritates Noise Free America the most: noise. The group, which has 30 chapters in 19 states, has been a thorn in the side of the car audio industry since its inception in 2001.

Industry Taking a Stand

The 12-volt industry, including the Mobile Enhancement Retailers Association (MERA), is doing its best to help retailers that face criticism from communities. The fear is that groups like Noise Free America will someday reach a freshman lawmaker that could bring the group’s cause to a national arena.

The industry’s position is that noise ordinances shouldn’t just target car stereo systems. Vicky Scrivner, president of MERA, said the association is working on a strategy for retailers that would mirror the one employed by Advanced Audio’s Babb. The committee heading up the policy has yet to meet to discuss a plan of action, but Scrivner said she expects the association to have something in place by the summer.

Holding up the process is that the committee is currently conducting research into the issue, as Noise Free America is one of many groups attempting to curb noise. In New York City, a group called Transportation Alternatives is lobbying a New York City councilman to push a bill through council that would ban the sale and installation of car alarms. This sobering revelation, which isn’t the first of its kind, demonstrates the need for a policy in the 12-volt industry.

“Noise Free America is what brought the issue to our radar screen,” Scrivner said. “We’re just trying to be on top of it, because this could easily become a national issue.”

Leading the Charge

Noise Free America, however, appears to be making the most noise that directly affects the mobile electronics industry. Ted Rueter, the group’s founder, had an editorial published in the Los Angeles Times in March 2002 that chastised the car audio industry for advocating what the group calls “boom cars.”

Rueter’s organization also played a role in Berkeley, Calif., where the community there organized itself to urge the city council to beef up its noise ordinance. Mobile Electronics magazine covered the issue last August with an article that detailed the community’s push, which included harassment of car audio shops.

The community uprising ended in November when Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean proposed an amendment to the city’s noise ordinance. “I really want the city to put a stop to it (loud car stereos),” Dean said in a local newspaper there.

The group’s more radical proposals are in effect in other cities, as well. Chicago and surrounding communities are impounding vehicles for noise violations. New York City was another hot spot for noise complaints, which resulted in the city implementing an initiative last October called Operation Silent Night. The program targets noisemakers with checkpoints and other tactics.

Attitudes Must Change

Storeowner Jeff West has faced his fare share of noise ordinance problems. He said the key for his shop, which was named retailer of the year by Mobile Electronics magazine, was a change in attitude.

West’s shop, Benchmark Auto Sound and Security, has the unenviable problem of being located on the border of two Illinois towns: Jerome and Springfield. Both cities, he said, have separate noise ordinances, one of which makes it difficult for West’s shop to operate without violating the city statute. This situation has created quite a challenge for West’s store.

Although the complaints still exist, West’s contributions to community events and charities has helped. Knowing the “movers and shakers” of the two towns doesn’t hurt either.

“We may have to be proactive about noise to show communities that we are at least doing our part to inform our customers of the noise ordinances out there,” said West. “Towns may take that into consideration if they decide to raise the bar with their ordinance. If there is a flamboyant attitude, that will also be taken into account. And Murphy’s Law will prevail.”