by Laurin Sellers

Orlando Sentinel

December 22, 2005

Armed with a tougher law, police are cracking down on Florida drivers who cruise the streets with their stereos blaring.

The stepped-up enforcement began this summer after the Legislature tightened an anti-noise statute to make it among the strictest in the nation.

Motorists playing a car radio or stereo loud enough to be plainly heard from 25 feet away could win up with a $70 ticket. The old buffer was 100 feet.

The crackdown is sweet to the ears of many Floridians, who routinely bombard law enforcement agencies with complaints about so-called “boom cars.”

We have people complaining that they can’t hear their own TV sets when some of these vehicles go by,” said Warren van Vuren, spokesman for the Titusville POlice Department, which just this moth launched “Operation Silent NIght” to crack down on drivers who blatantly defy the law.

The new law has led to an increasing number of noise-violation tickets in Central Florida and throughout the state.

For example, the Orland Police Department has written nearly twice as many tickets since the law took effect July 1, 1996 as it did the first half of the year (50). The pattern is similar in Osceola County, where deputies have issued 89 citations since July 1, compared with 39 from January to June.

In Seminole County, the number of citations from the Sheriff’s Office went from 33 the first half of the year to 65 since since July 1. And in Brevard, tickets by the Sheriff’s Office went from 85 to 107 in the same period.

Statewide, 6,896 people were ticketed during the first half of this year. From July to December 14, at least 8.304 people were cited, said Frank Penela, spokesman for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

“It’s a quality of life issue,” said Sgt. Mime Grigsby of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. The agency issued 392 noise violations to drivers from August 2 through December 12, the only period for which numbers are available.

“It’s also a safety issue. If someone has their music playing, they can’t hear an emergency vehicle coming,” he said.

Motorists who like to drive with the music up concede that they can be annoying. But they argue that 25 feet is too strict, making it possible for even standard-issue car stereos to violate the law.

For nearly 20 years, Paul Papadeas, owners of Sound Crafters in South Daytona, has hosted the nation’s largest competition to find the loudest “boom car,” called the Spring Break Nationals. Held each March at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, the event typically draws about 20,000 enthusiasts, Papadeas said.

“While I believe nobody has the right to infringe on someone’s quiet enjoyment of life, I think 25 feet is just plain silly,” he said. “You don’t need amplifiers. Anybody’s car radio can do that.”

But anti-noise advocates are cheering the crackdown.

“Bravo to Florida! I’ve never heard of another law that’s 25 feet,” said Ted Rueter, director of Noise Free America, a group based in Indianapolis that fights for anti-noise legislation, urges stricter enforcement of existing laws, and works to raise public awareness of the potential health hazards linked to loud sounds.

Rueter said most other states and cities that have ordinances make it unlawful to operate car stereos when the sound can be heard 50 to 100 feet away.

But although Rueter praised Florida’s change in distance, he chastised state lawmakers for not making the penalty stiffer.

In Chicago, for example, police have the authority to confiscate a vehicle for three months and charge up to $516, even for a first-time offense. And 4,00 vehicles are seized annually in the city, Rueter said. In Hoover, Alabama, first-time violators can wind up in jail.

“Boom car drivers are definitely flouting the law, and a $70 fine is a slap on the wrist,” said Rueter, who also teaches political science at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.

But not everyone agrees that quieter is better.

Rusty Shaffer, 28, of Cocoa has been ticketed 13 times in the past nine years for playing his car stereo too loud.

It has cost him nearly $800 in fines. One recent case, in which he was also charged with fleeing or evading officers, is still pending.

Shaffer, who customizes cars for a living, drives an indigo-blue 1996 Chevy Tahoe with 26-inch rims, a chrome front end, neon lights, and a not-so-nice message to police scrawled across his rear windshield. The truck is equipped with a $15,000 stereo system that has 120 speakers, including 14 in each door and 24 10-inch subwoofers.

Shaffer said listening to music loud enough to damage his own eardrums relaxes him.

“Everybody says I’m going to go deaf, but I just don’t think about it,” he said. Shaffer said he usually turns down the volume while stopped at red lights alongside other cars–“unless they are other custom cars.”

“Then I do some showboating,” he conceded. “It’s like bragging rights on the streets.”

Law officers say all most people want is some peace and quiet, and they have the research to prove it.

Police in Savannah, Georgia conducted a study for the US Department of Justice from September 2001 to January 2003 on the problem of loud car stereos in the downtown section of their city. They concluded that the sound systems were a major concern to the community.

During their study, Savannah police also surveyed car stereo dealers who said many of the customers–who typically spend $200 to $2,000 on their systems–weren’t concerned about paying fines. Some viewed being fined as a “badge of honor.”

Commander Doug Massey, who is heading Titusville’s crackdown, said those are just the kind of violators his department is looking for.

“It’s going to have to be pretty excessive for us to write a ticket,” he said. “We’re not trying to pick on anyone. We’re just trying to address some of the dangers involved, and hopefully, this will help.”