by Clarke Bustard

The Richmond Times-Dispatch

November 3, 2002

“Disturb the peace.”

“Hate Your Neighbors.”

“My noise can penetrate your silence at any time.”

Those are some of the slogans promoting high-volume automotive audio systems that turn ordinary vehicles into public nuisances.

“Boom cars,” as well as vehicles equipped with the unmuffled mufflers known as “performance exhaust” systems, pumping out enough noise to loosen mortar from masonry, are prime targets of Noise Free America, a lobbying group founded last year by Ted Rueter, a political science professor at Tulane University.

Noisy cars figure prominently in “a vicious subculture of audio violence,” Rueter said last weekend at a conference sponsored by the Richmond chapter of Noise Free America.

The organization, which Rueter founded last year, has, by his count, “a couple of hundred” members scattered among 22 chapters in 14 states.

Up against audio, auto and motorcycle enthusiasts, owners of barking dogs, firearms and power lawn and garden equipment, overenthusiastic partygoers, the construction industry and society’s other professional and avocational noisemakers, Noise Free America may be the most hopelessly quixotic pressure group in the country.

Politicians take one look at the interests with which it is at odds, count potential votes for and against noise suppression, and take a powder, the group claims. Police shrug of its members’ complaints.

Noise Free America soldiers on. “It took 400 years to do something about second-hand smoke,” said one local mainstay of the group. “We’re ready to spend 400 years trying to do something about noise.”


The pursuit of happiness is one of the founding principles of this country, and many of the pursuits that make Americans happiest happen to be noisy.

Rueter acknowledges that, but counters with an auditory version of the “Broken Windows” theory popularized by the sociologist James Q. Wilson.

According to this theory, broken windows, graffiti and other visible signs of neglect and disorder in a neighborhood, if left unrepaired, encourage more physical and behavioral degradation. Rueter proposes as a corollay a “Broken Eardrums” theory, that noise leads to a breakdown in social equilibrium.

“Noise, I believe, is an aggressive act,” he said – one that is often compounded in a cycle of increasing aggression by both noisemakers and their victims.

In a survey conducted as part of the 2000 census, Rueter said, “noise was the top complaint of people about their neighborhoods [and] the major reason why people move.”

New York City has formed a noise-control committee, led by Arline L. Bronzaft, another speaker at last weekend’s Richmond conference, and its current and former mayors have promoted a “Silent Nights” noise-reduction program.

(Silent nights in New York – how’s that for quixotic?)

Boom cars and performance exhaust systems are manifestations of “antagonism to society” by “male adolescents of all ages” by exercising their “hypermasculinity and a desire to exert power,” Rueter said.

He cited a recent study by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Community Policing suggesting that drug dealers and other criminal elements cruise neighborhoods in boom cars to establish territorial rights and signal their readiness to do business.

Because boom cars are so popular in urban neighborhoods, Rueter and other members of his group are often accused of racism, “of targeting young, black, urban males. But there are plenty of white folks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, you name it, driving around with their stereos blasting,” he said, “and plenty of low-income and minority people who are plagued by the noise.”


Noise Free America is a belated response to a society that has experienced a quantum leap in noise levels – “up sixfold in major U.S. cities in the past 15 years,” according to Rueter – and to the new fashionability of noisy products reflected in those in-your-ear advertising slogans.

After listening to Rueter and his supporters bad-mouth boom cars, I suggested that they go after an even worse set of offenders: “Buzz cars,” the ill-equipped boom cars whose owners hook 150-watt amplifiers to loudspeakers rated for only 100 watts, forcing nearby motorists and pedestrians to endure not just high volume and thumping bass but also rattling distortion.

These anti-noise crusaders also do not seem to have given enough thought to new and potentially more damaging noises spawned by high technology.

Synthesizers and other electronic instruments make it possible to sustain unwavering pitches, at both audible and subaudible levels, indefinitely.

This is a kind of sound not found in nature and not previously heard in music, and it psychological and physiological effects are not widely understood. It is known, though, that certain low-frequency tones that can’t be heard can cause physical reactions ranging from nausea to hemorrhage.

“We have never experienced the amount of low-frequency noise that’s all around us today,” said James Kaufmann, a pianist who performed during last weekend’s conference. “We have no idea what effect it’s having on us; but we do know that in nature low frequencies, such as the seismic rumbling before earthquakes, alarm animals that can sense them.”


Sometimes it takes noise to beat noise

Randy Throckmorton, president of the local chapter of Noise Free America, learned that lesson by living next door to a church that favored animated, highly amplified worship services.

Asking the minister and congregation to tone it down proved futile, Throckmorton recalled, and the police and courts couldn’t prohibit the free exercise of religion, however noisy.

After a careful reading of local ordinances, however, Throckmorton said he discovered that he could freely exercise the right to rev up his chainsaw every time the faithful got too spirited.

He and his neighbors soon agreed to lower the volume.