by Glenn Ruppel and John Stossel

ABC News – 20/20

August 12, 2005

For some custom car makers, their entire car is a work of art. That’s what the people who build these cars call them — works of art.

People have always customized their cars, but lately more people are adding more gadgets, unusual hydraulics, bizarre paint jobs and even a fish tank in the trunk to show off at custom car shows.

Today cars cannot just look special, they have to sound special and be as loud as possible.

Many drivers spend tens of thousands dollars on custom audio. And every year the sound gets louder. Each week, the MTV show “Pimp My Ride” performs the equivalent of an extreme makeover — turning drivers’ old wrecks into souped-up dream cars.

They start from scratch, gutting the vehicle and then adding all the extras — which might include a back filled with electronics — like 13 speakers and 8,000 watts of audio.

Is It a Car or a Plane?

Ordinary car stereos generate as much as 600 watts of sound and I thought that was plenty. But at car shows, some people want at least 10 times that.

They want enough volume to make quarters bounce on the roof and the windows shake. It can be enough sound to blow out an eardrum, so most of the people who attend the shows wear ear protection.

According to one driver, the volume “just sends a rush through my body. It is so nice … I only get it from this car.”

Some of the car audio systems generate 170 decibels of sound, equivalent to the noise of a jet plane taking off 25 feet in the distance. What’s the appeal? Drivers told us it’s a hobby just like arts and crafts.

Legislating the Sound

If they want to blast sound at car shows, fine, but there’s a nastier side to custom audio. Every night, all around America young people are cruising in their cars and a fair number of them think it’s OK to impose their sound systems on everyone else.

I first reported on the boom car craze when it began more than a decade ago, and at that time I spent a night with the kids to try to understand the thrill.

The guys said the loud music attracted girls. That may be great for them, but what about all the people who don’t like it?

“I’ve had many people write to me say … they have boom cars blasting through their neighborhood every five minutes,” said Ted Rueter of Noise Free America.

His group lobbies against noise pollution and is upset about four big sources of unnecessary noise: boom cars, car alarms, leaf blowers and motorcycles.

There are noise pollution laws in most places, but Rueter said the cops rarely enforce them.

Last month, Florida passed a law making it illegal to play music audible more than 25 feet, or two car lengths, away.

Miami cops told us they’ll arrest a driver or impound his car if he doesn’t turn it down. I’ll believe that when I see it, but in Chicago noise laws are enforced.

“They average 3,000 confiscations a year, and boom car business is down a third,” said Rueter.

Businesses Cashing in on Noise

Elsewhere the loud car business is booming and you should know that legitimate businesses promote the noise.

Sony’s Web site has a tag line promoting its car audio products as the way to achieve “the sound your neighbors fear.”

Rueter thinks such advertising encourages boys to go out and cause trouble by blasting their stereos. “It causes psychological fear … It causes hearing loss. It causes sleep loss,” said Rueter.

Sony told us the advertisement was tongue in cheek, and they may change the tone. But other companies have run ads saying their products will “shake the living, wake the dead,” and “annoy neighbors.”

“People have the right to enjoy their property, and increasingly people do not have that right in this country, because of boom cars,” said Rueter.

When I last spoke with the kids and said some of us don’t want to hear their music they said we should walk away. They didn’t see any harm in it, after all, they said, it’s just music.

That’s better than a noisy leaf blower, I suppose, but does it have to be that loud?

One teen I spoke to said it’s only “old people” who are complaining, and said they should just stay inside.

He said he wasn’t trying to badmouth anyone or hurt anybody. He said kids are just out trying to have fun, and asked, “Without music, what is the world?”

Fine, but does it have to be so loud?