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Brian C. Anderson
Let’s Ban Car Alarms
These infernal gadgets shatter urban civility, while doing not a nickel’s worth of good.
Winter 2002

WEEEUWEEEUWEEEU WUUWUUWUUWUU

You struggle up to consciousness. What’s wrong? What time is it?

PYEW PYEW PYEW PYEW OOOOOOO? OOOOOOO?

Your heart’s racing, blood pressure spiking up. Adrenaline-charged, you’re bolt awake. It’s 4:00 AM. That $!@# car alarm!

WOMP! WOMP! WOMP! WOMP!

OOOOEEEE; OOOOEEEE; OOOO.

In imagination, you become bazooka-wielding Arnold Schwarzenegger and blast the wretched car to Kingdom Come, alarm and all.

WEEEUWEEEUWEEEUWEEEU.

Why do we have to have these damned $!@# things?

We don’t. New York City should entirely ban their use within its five boroughs. Car alarms don’t do a nickel’s worth of good, the evidence overwhelmingly shows. But they do plenty of bad. Not only do they measurably harm the thousands of individuals they harass somewhere in the city every minute of the day, but also they fray the sense of public order and civility that are key constituents of the quality of urban life.

One can’t state strongly enough how vehemently New Yorkers hate these infernal devices. “People start climbing the walls around here,” says Caroline Besancon, a teacher who lives in Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood. “You hear the alarm go off—and it happens at all hours—and you just dread that it won’t stop.” Bronx Campaign for Peace and Quiet founder John Dallas ranks car alarms with rap-blasting “boom-box cars” (see box, page 71) and rowdy neighbors as a major cause of noise complaints. “Every time we have a community meeting, alarms come up,” he says. Roughly 80 percent of Gotham community boards describe them as neighborhood irritations and say that things are getting worse, or at least not better. More than 80 percent of the calls to New York’s quality-of-life hotline concern noise, and many are car-alarm complaints, police say.

New York residents aren’t the only ones up in arms. In England, the alarms are the Number One noise annoyance, scoring ten out of ten on an “apoplexy meter,” according to a poll last summer. The vast majority of respondents to a recent international survey on noise rated car alarms as “intrusive” and among the most aggravating of noise disruptions.

But then car-alarm makers have designed them to aggravate. First, they’re loud. Top models, with menacing names like Viper and Hellfire, boast sirens that hit a painful 125 decibels. “That’s as loud as a jet or a disco,” observes noise expert Arline Bronzaft—and it’s sounding right outside your window.

Equally annoying, the alarms often come with electronic sensors so skittish that a thunderstorm, a passing motorcycle, or even someone leaning on a door can get the high-strung things screaming. On some estimates, 95 percent of car alarms that go off are false alarms. Some alarms trigger automatically for a few seconds as the owner approaches his car and unlocks it with his electronic key-chain “entry system.” With so many vehicles equipped with these frantic noisemakers—one in four households now owns one, costing anywhere from $100 to $1,000 and purchased either with the car or in the $500 million “aftermarket”—a residential urban neighborhood can suffer three or four blaring per hour, on a bad day, even if there’s no thief in sight.

The alarms can do a lot more damage than merely annoy people, however. Noise isn’t just a matter of opinion, as the New York Times asserted recently, but a serious pollutant—“a hazard to your health and well-being,” explains Bronzaft, who advises New York City on noise-related quality-of-life issues. In fact, the body reacts to sound levels above 70 decibels—and car alarms are nearly 50 times louder than that, since every ten-decibel increase represents a doubling in loudness—as if it’s in danger. Capillaries in the extremities constrict and blood surges to the brain, the liver secretes glucose for energy, and the adrenal gland pumps hormones into the bloodstream, boosting stress levels through the roof, as the body gets ready to fight (see “Quiet, Please,” Autumn 1994). With every New Yorker on edge after September 11, such shocks to the system are even more unwelcome.

Car alarms also take a toll on sleep. Even a 45-decibel noise will wake a typical sleeper. An alarm honking louder than a jackhammer on the street outside your building all but guarantees it. Psychologists add that the constantly changing noise that car alarms emit is more upsetting than continuous noise, making it more difficult to put the pillow over your head and get back to sleep. The negative effects of sleeplessness range from lost productivity to mood problems to a greater likelihood of car accidents.

But the alarms’ most corrosive effect is on the essential urban virtue of civility. Cities—where millions of people from dramatically different backgrounds live densely packed together—require countless acts of mutual adjustment and reciprocal decency in order to flourish. Car alarms send a message directly counter to such civility. “People who place such alarms in their vehicles show the ultimate in selfishness: a willingness to invade the space of their fellow citizens with a raucous noise that says, ‘I care about my car and couldn’t care less about your ears,’” argues anti-noise activist Dave Pickell. No surprise, given the aggressive nature of these devices, that “car lynchings” of vehicles with disruptive alarms are frequent. Bleary-eyed citizens have slashed tires, smeared door handles with dog doo, or even smashed the windows of offending vehicles. Car alarms are civic poison.

The justification for all this nuisance is that the alarms purport to deter auto crime. Invented in a funky California auto hi-fi shop in the seventies, they first really started to disrupt the lives of city dwellers everywhere in the crime-ridden eighties. Their dystopian wails were a desperate S.O.S., signifying that no one was in charge and that public order had collapsed. Urban police seemed powerless to stop the epidemic of auto crime (and of crime in general): in Gotham, where an ill-managed and demoralized NYPD had all but decriminalized car theft, thieves were stealing upward of 100,000 cars yearly and looting countless more. The newfangled devices, “born from and based on fear,” as vehicle-security expert

Eric Abbiss describes them, offered a sense of security to besieged car owners, who reasoned that an alarm might scare car thieves away by its ear-splitting screams. Many states, New York included, agreed. With prodding from alarm-industry lobbyists, they passed laws forcing auto insurers to offer a discount (up to 10 percent annually) to any policyholder who put in an alarm—in effect subsidizing the industry’s steady growth over the next two decades.

But 20 years on, it’s incontrovertible: car alarms don’t work. “Noise alarms are basically designed, so far as we can tell, to annoy your neighbors,” judges Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute, the insurance-industry think tank that studies auto-insurance losses. “We’ve looked at the thefts of insured vehicles with and without car alarms and came away with the view that they don’t make a difference,” he says. Fordham University psychology professor Harold Takooshian, co-author of a forthcoming study on car alarms’ effectiveness, hasn’t found a shred of evidence that they deter anything other than a good night’s rest. “If these alarms were medicines, the makers would find themselves prosecuted for fraud,” he says. “I don’t see how anyone can speak in their favor.”

The reasons they don’t work are straightforward. First, a determined professional car thief can make short work of one—and these days the pros are responsible for 80 percent of the $7 billion-plus car-theft racket. A noise alarm would be “a two-second slowdown” for a seasoned crook, notes one cop working in auto crime. Another streetwise observer agrees: “I know these cats. They’ll steal your car and have it on a flatbed truck, and the alarm is still going off,” says Dwayne “Snipe” Holmes, a former member of the PJ Crips gang, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. At best, it is possible that an alarm might prompt a teenage joyrider or an amateur car-stereo thief to choose another car—displacing rather than reducing thefts—but there’s no hard evidence that this is the case.

Second, the alarms have become so commonplace and false alarms so ubiquitous that nobody thinks a crime is in process when one goes off. “It’s not unusual to walk by a parking garage with an alarm sounding, and the first thought isn’t, ‘Call the cops’; it’s, ‘Why doesn’t that idiot shut his alarm off?’” notes Hazelbaker of the insurance-industry think tank. Says Detective Randy Ballin of the California Highway Patrol: “No one pays attention to alarms in Los Angeles anymore.” Some time ago, Ballin and another officer, both in plainclothes, were strolling down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills when they came across a red Ferrari without a license plate. Opening the unlocked car door, the two officers triggered the alarm. “Here we are in the middle of the day in the middle of Beverly Hills with all these people around and this alarm on a Ferrari going off, and no one even notices us,” Ballin recalls. His tale jibes with a survey by the Ohio-based Progressive Casualty Insurance Co. that found that fewer than 1 percent of respondents would call the police on hearing a car alarm. Even owners are jaded, says Brooklyn alarm dealer Norman Maryasis. “If you’re in a store, and an alarm goes off in the parking lot outside, do you immediately think it’s your car and come rushing out?” he asks. “No.”

Recently, I discovered for myself how right Maryasis is. A cop friend graciously offered to lend me his pickup truck, saying he’d park it near the precinct house and leave the keys in the ashtray. I’d never seen the small truck before, but my wife had—and said she’d spotted it when walking past the station earlier. Finding the truck she described, I got in. Sure enough, the keys were in the ashtray—but I couldn’t find the right one. As I jabbed key after key into the ignition, the alarm suddenly began to blast. I couldn’t stop it. Passersby shot angry looks at me.

Sheepishly, I ran into the police station and asked the cop at the front desk to call my friend, who arrived in his cruiser five minutes later. “I set off your alarm and can’t figure out how to shut it off,” I cried.

“I don’t have a car alarm,” he replied.

“Aren’t these your keys?” I asked, holding them up.

“No, they’re not. You must’ve gotten into the wrong truck!” he laughed. And indeed, the real owner lived three houses down—and was working in his front yard as his car alarm reverberated through the whole neighborhood. He had heard the noise but simply assumed it couldn’t be his alarm. My officer friend, turning to me, summed up the fiasco: “You could’ve stolen it, and nobody would’ve lifted a finger!”

Despite the evidence stacked against car alarms, lobbyists insist that their devices work as advertised. “If we didn’t have them, we would see a massive increase in stolen cars,” says Matt Swanston, a manager of communications for the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group that represents alarm manufacturers and other electronics purveyors. The industry’s proof: the 35 percent drop in auto theft during the 1990s. “You have to assume the alarms are working,” Swanston argues.

But this is nonsense. Auto theft rocketed upward in the eighties, peaking at a shocking 1.7 million cars stolen nationwide during 1991, even as car-alarm sales boomed: then–industry-leader Code Alarm’s sales increased nearly 70 percent in 1987 alone. What really cut car theft was better policing, especially in New York. When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his top cop William Bratton arrived in 1993, Gotham was the car-theft capital of the world. By going after the chop shops and auto exporters that cannibalized the stolen cars and sold their parts on foreign markets, Giuliani-era policing slashed car thefts by more than 60 percent by the end of the nineties, from their 1993 peak of 110,000 (see “What We’ve Learned About Policing,” Spring 1999).

The industry’s fallback position is to point out that 95 percent of those who’ve bought alarms are happy with them and that people feel more secure owning them. But so what? Lots of things people buy or do might make them individually happy or reassure them but come with social costs that may or may not be worth putting up with. In the case of car alarms, “it’s hard to imagine that whatever their potential good is might outweigh their societal cost,” says insurance-industry think-tank executive Hazelbaker—especially if that potential good is only that car-alarm owners like them, regardless of their real-world effectiveness.

Even if car alarms did deter crime, they’d be hard to defend in a strict cost-benefit analysis. The New York Times’s unfailingly interesting columnist John Tierney has described an economic experiment by University of California at San Diego professor Richard Carson that calculates the social cost of preventing just one car from being stolen in New York by the use of car alarms. It works out at considerably more than the average stolen-car value of $6,100 or so. Carson’s calculation, done a few years ago, runs like this. Assume that an alarm wakes up 500 city sleepers for 15 minutes, that the value of lost leisure time is 50 percent of one’s normal wage ($15 per hour in Gotham, Carson posited), and that there are ten false alarms for every real one. Do the math: even if the alarms were to scare away the bad guys, the $9,375 cost of every $6,100 saving is a poor trade-off.

Drive-by Noise Assaults

Those who say that cars are toxic to cities never cite the automobile’s worst urban offense: noise pollution. Second only to car alarms as a shatterer of urban tranquillity are  “boom-box” cars—vehicles rigged with stereo amplifiers so powerful that they can rattle windowpanes blocks away.

Boom-box cars have given birth to an entire subculture dedicated to offending bourgeois sensibilities, as even a cursory look at car-audio ads reveals. In one, a young punk with a stubby goatee, wearing wraparound black sunglasses, sneeringly sticks out his diamond-studded tongue. The ad copy reads: RESEARCH SHOWS EXCESSIVELY LOUD CAR STEREOS ARE THE NUMBER ONE ANNOYANCE TO PEOPLE OVER 40. WHATEVER. A second ad promises: AMPS THAT RIP YOUR ?!%*! EARS OFF. A third commands: FORGET WAKING THE NEIGHBORS. SCARE THE NEIGHBORS . . . . SHATTER SOUND PRESSURE RECORDS AND WINDOWS. Such ads boast, as anti-noise activist Michael Wright points out, that “boom cars are destructive devices intended to do injury to others.”

Typically male, under 30, and with little education, boom-box-car enthusiasts readily admit they’re out to affront. “I am proudly one of the people who enjoy making your windows rattle,” Ryan Herron told an Indianapolis paper in early November. “It’s kind of a power thing.” Says fellow boom-car fan Blake Polen: “My music is always loud but goes louder at intersections or parking lots where a lot of other people can hear the music. I guess the louder the system you have, the more bragging rights you can have.”

In fact, boom-system owners regularly enter into “db [decibel] drag racing”—competition to see whose car stereo can hit the most deafening noise levels. The current record is 174.2 decibels: nearly loud enough to splinter human bone. In another common practice, boom cars will prowl the streets, basses throbbing, seeking to trigger hypersensitive car alarms, sometimes setting off as many as three a block.

Many city dwellers—as intended—are outraged by boom-box cars and have pushed to have them muted. Responding to popular pressure, municipalities from Buffalo, New York, to Papillion, Nebraska, have passed decibel ordinances to crack down on these “devices from beyond the gates of hell,” as one opponent calls them.

New York City was one of the earliest to try to silence them. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, shortly after he took office in 1994, instructed the NYPD to enforce a provision of the Vehicle and Traffic Law that makes it illegal to play amplified sound from a vehicle in excess of 80 decibels. Violators faced a summons or, if they had rung up multiple violations, even confiscation of their vehicles. But enforcement has been spotty, noise activists say. As John Dallas, head of the Bronx Campaign for Peace and Quiet, reports, “At least in the Bronx, there’s still a huge sense of consternation about boom-box cars.”

Anti-boom-box-car efforts have run into charges of racism, since, in cities anyway, it’s often minority youths, blasting gangster rap or salsa, who use the audio systems to annoy or threaten anyone in their vicinity. A Chicago alderman recently tried—unsuccessfully—to overturn Chicago’s tough anti-boom-box-car ordinance, which allows cops to impound excessively noisy vehicles (more than 7,000 have been seized since the ordinance was introduced in 1996), claiming that the regulation had a disproportionate impact on minorities. In voting overwhelmingly to retain the ordinance, City Council members dismissed the racism charges and stressed that the regulation “has done wonders” in making the city quieter—and that it is wildly popular. Consumer Electronics Association lobbyist Doug Johnson still thinks the penalty “unnecessarily severe.” “The word on the street,” he grumbled, “is that if you buy this [equipment] you will be pulled over right away.”

Such grumbling is music to sleep-deprived, law-abiding urban ears.

Making the alarms even harder to justify is the existence of vehicle security systems that do work—noiselessly. According to the Highway Loss Data Institute, manufacturer-installed “immobilizers”—they shut off your car’s ignition system when someone with no key or a key without the right computer chip embedded in it tries to start the car—have shrunk insurance losses for vehicles rigged with them by 50 percent.

Impressive, too, is the Lojack car-tracking system. A stolen car outfitted with Lojack will send out a radio signal that police can trace with ease, leading to a remarkable 95 percent recovery rate (75 percent within 24 hours). Equipping just 2 percent of the cars with the system in an area where lots of cars are stolen, the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates, can reduce auto theft by up to a third by helping cops nab the professional crooks who commit a disproportionate number of the thefts. New car-tracking systems using satellite technology promise even bigger successes.

From its inception, the car-alarm industry has known that its product was going to make people mad, and it has waged a constant campaign of damage control. Its basic tack has been to argue that most of the false-alarm problem can be solved by greater professionalism and consumer education. “We think the nuisance alarms can be minimized, if not eliminated,” claims industry advocate Swanston, “if consumers are educated about the products they have and make sure that alarms are installed correctly, properly, and safely.” The industry has voluntarily promoted a certification program for installers to help meet these goals.

Yet the alarm makers’ argument fails to persuade. True, a bad installation can make an alarm so sensitive that it’ll go off virtually if someone looks at the car the wrong way, but the association’s effort to upgrade installation presupposes that alarm owners want what their neighbors want. Not so: as car-alarm specialist and former installer Abbiss notes: “I used to have customers come to me and say, ‘I want this thing so sensitive that it’ll go off when a leaf falls on it.’” A Baltimore-area installer remarked of his customers a while back, “They’re just getting too paranoid.”

In addition, as many an urban resident will tell you, aggressive, resentful motorists increasingly let their alarms go off on purpose as an in-your-face provocation. Consumer education seems unlikely to change such antisocial behavior. And finally, the growing number of alarms on the street means that even if the false-alarm rate falls, the overall number of alarms going off isn’t likely to diminish.

So if car alarms don’t work and drive most everybody crazy, what can we do about them? Many cities, including New York and Baltimore, have tried to crack down on them by fining owners of alarms that don’t shut off after a few minutes and empowering cops to go into a car whose alarm keeps blaring to disable the device, if they can’t find its owner to turn it off. But in Gotham, enforcement, though it varies from precinct to precinct, remains lax. Even before September 11 gave them other things to worry about, cops wrote fewer than 300 summonses a year for car-alarm violations.

Even if enforcement were draconian, however, the time-limit approach doesn’t go nearly far enough. A disgruntled Staten Islander explains why in a letter to the New York Times: “Limiting the amount of time that these alarms may go off has done little good; the same alarm can go off time and again.” As for sleep, Les Blomberg, an anti-noise advocate, has it exactly right: “All it takes is a few seconds of one of these things blaring, and that’s it—you’re wide awake.”

New York should be the first municipality to ban car alarms: you can have one if you want, but you can’t turn it on in the five boroughs. If yours goes off even for a moment, you are subject to a $500 fine. In the same vein, state legislators should end the absurd mandated insurance break for alarms.

The industry would howl and lobby to derail a ban, of course, just as it worked successfully to quash a City Council bill in 1997 that would have outlawed the aftermarket sale of alarms within the city. But a firm mayoral push might be sufficient to get enough council members on board to pass a ban. Moreover, a ban might head off a new, motion-activated bike alarm, called “Cycurity,” that will be coming to market any day now with the potential to swell the urban din exponentially.

Sure, New York is never going to be a quiet place. Urban life is noisy. But cities have been getting inexorably louder in recent years: England’s are ten times noisier than a decade ago, with car alarms a major culprit, according to a new, long-term study. No doubt the same is true for New York and other U.S. cities too: the Census Bureau finds that noise—not crime, as you’d expect—is the major reason Americans give for wanting to move. People need noise limits to live peaceably together in great numbers, and they always have: the first recorded noise ordinance dates back to Julius Caesar’s banning of chariots from the streets of Rome after dark.

It’s a mark of how far New York has come from the era of 2,200 murders a year that we can think about amenities like peace and quiet rather than mere survival. Especially after September 11, we must keep on building a city that thrives and prospers—and urban civility is part of the recipe.

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