by Cathy Gandel
January 1, 2006
Judy Ellis, 64, couldn’t stand it anymore. After enduring months of booming, throbbing music from her neighbor’s Jeep, she sued him–and as part of the settlement, he sold the sound system and paid Ellis” legal costs. Now the St. Petersburg, Florida resident is campaigning to raise the state’s fine for boom car noise from $70 to $350 and to impose a penalty on driver’s licenses.
Complaints like Ellis’ are nothing new. In 1872 the town of Ledbury, England made it a misdemeanor to annoy neighbors with noise. But in the last 15 years noise levels have risen sixfold in major cities, reports the nonprofit Noise Free America, thanks to car alarms, louder tools, increased traffic, busier airports, more homes with air conditioners (which account for about 5 percent of noise complaints), and pounding-bass car stereos. And that racket is far from benign. Noise can boost stress, raise blood pressure, and cause depression, hearing loss, and lack of sleep.
“It’s an assault on community values,” says Mark Huber, 51, a Richmond, Virginia antinoise advocate. “Yet it’s promoted as a right by bullies who inflict acoustical violence on others.”
More and more Americans are mad as hell, and they not going to take it anymore. Nearly half are 50-plus; in an informal poll taken by noiseoff.org, an antinoise site, 45 percent of respondents were between 49 and 65. They’re people like Ron Czapala, 54, from Louisville, Kentucky, who lobbied for that city’s noise ordinance. And Jo Blair, 50, who has fought boom car noise for more than five years in east Texas. Other groups include the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse (nonoise.org) and Noise Free America (noisefree.org).
In the absence of a national policy—the Office of Noise Abatement and Control lost its funding the Reagan era–most work is done locally. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is toughening New York City’s noise code, from imposing a five-minute limit on yapping dogs at night to stricter standards for construction projects. Three years of lobbying quieted the train whistles going through Richmond, California. In Crown Point, Indiana, repeat noise offenders can be fined up to $2,500.
Want alternatives to earplugs and white noise machines for blocking out the din? Sony and Bose offer headphones that reduce ambient sounds so you hear more music and less background noise. Some new appliances are 20 to 25 percent quieter than older models; one Bosch Integra Vision dishwasher runs at 44 decibels, 20 decibels softer than a normal conversation.
Eduardo Bonsi of San Francisco may want a louder dishwasher to block out the blare of the city’s electric trolley buses. “It’s like an alarm clock going day and night,” says Bonsi, 49, who filed suits against the city and lost. “I’m the hostage of acoustic assassins.”