by Jon Wilson

St. Petersburg Times

March 30, 2005

A growing effort in St. Petersburg aims to combat body-vibrating, heart-stopping, car-rattling car stereos.

ST. PETERSBURG – You feel it down deep:

It’s a thumping bubble of sound starting in the belly and vibrating upward, a heart-knocking, sinus-shaking wave carrying a punch hard enough to rattle strong doors.

And it’s coming from, well, a car.

“Boom cars” that carry powerful audio systems with signature thudding bass notes can get on people’s nerves. If the noise is loud enough, police can step in – as long as they can hear it.

St. Petersburg police operate a program called Operation Tone Down in which officers issue warnings or citations to offenders.

Decibel meters aren’t needed.

“If the sound is audible within 100 feet, we can issue a ticket,” said Johnny Harris, crime prevention officer.

Police have issued 360 Tone Down citations since October, department spokesman George Kajtsa said.

Noise opponents say the racket shatters the peace and can cause health problems such as hearing loss, high blood pressure and sleep deprivation.

“I personally have developed severe migraines,” said Danielle Richards, a Central Oak Park resident.

Richards said her neighborhood experiences “a constant onslaught” of cars with loud audio systems.

A growing effort in St. Petersburg aims to combat what some see as a serious noise nuisance. Richards is circulating a petition, hoping to take the issue to City Hall and beyond.

At the same time, the sound that drives some up a wall represents soul-stirring inspiration to others.

“I’ve been into this since I was 14 years old. It was a hobby, now I live off this stuff,” said John Hirdhani, who owns Audio Source on 34th Street S. The shop is one of many in south Pinellas County that installs audio equipment.

Vehicle sound systems, say their devotees, make them feel good, strong, empowered. “The testosterone factor,” Wayne Harris called it.

Harris is a car-audio expert who in 1998 founded the dB Drag Racing Association. The group doesn’t actually sponsor races; it sponsors sound competition to see whose system can produce the most decibels – for which the dB stands.

It also has a published creed on its Web site. The first rule: “I will never operate my system in a manner that will disturb those around me.”

Those who do have inspired St. Petersburg residents to fight back.

Judy Ellis lives in Lakewood Estates. Last year, she sued an 18-year-old youth when his audio system disturbed her. The young man apologized to Ellis and got rid of his stereo.

Ellis, who calls boom car drivers “audio terrorists,” represents the St. Petersburg chapter of Noise Free America, an advocacy group for peace and quiet. “I’d like the city to use more stringent rules,” Ellis said.

“A lot of cities and states are taking this deadly seriously. There are places where they smash the equipment” after multiple offenses, she said.

Ellis also is working on a petition. She took it Saturday to a bicycle rodeo. Every adult who came near her table – nine, she said – signed.

Ellis also said others have told her they have dismantled their cars’ sound systems after realizing they were sources of annoyance.

“Sometimes when you make people understand what they’re doing, not just to themselves, but others, often you will get people who will say, “I didn’t realize that,’ ” Ellis said. City statutes authorize a first-violation fine of $50. Multiple offenses can draw fines of up to $500 or jail time of up to 90 days. State law treats violations as nonmoving, noncriminal traffic violations, which carry lesser penalties.

Ellis last week took the “Ban the Boom” campaign to Officer Harris’ Tuesday morning radio show on WRXB 1590-AM. Callers soon began ringing.

“People complain all the time about people riding down the street, rattling their windows, waking them up,” Harris said.

The piece of equipment that produces the substantial bass sound is called a subwoofer. They might come in 8-, 10-, 12- or 15-inch sizes. The larger the speaker, the more pronounced bass it can produce.

A typical system going into a car might include four speakers, a radio and amplifier and cost $900 or more, said Hirdhani, the Audio Source owner.

Hirdhani said he drives a Yukon with a system that includes four 12-inch speakers and a 2,600-watt amplifier. He said he likes to listen to dance music, rap and rock ‘n’ roll.

“There’s a responsible way to play your music,” he said. “If you’re at a light, turn it down a little bit.”

Police suggest residents who are bothered by loud car audio systems call their community police officer. If they get a tag number, the CPO then can find the owner of the system and have a chat.