Cities have begun taking noise pollution seriously. A new ordinance in Detroit, for example, cracks down on boom-box cars, outfitted with huge stereo amplifiers that can rumble your floors blocks away. Now in the Motor City, you'll get slapped with a fine if your car stereo can be heard over ten feet away. “Your freedom to play your music loudly stops at my eardrums,” said Detroit council member Barbara-Rose Collins, the measure's sponsor.
New York City is no exception to this trend. This summer, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a plan to “bring the city's noise code—which hasn't been updated in 32 years—into the twenty-first century,” to make Gotham a bit less nerve-jangling place. Noting that noise is by far the city's chief quality-of-life complaint, the mayor commendably proposed simplifying enforcement of noise violations against barking dogs, thundering stereos, jingling ice-cream trucks, and other aural irritations by allowing police to use their own ears instead of tricky handheld decibel meters to determine if the noise is excessive. The administration sees the new code as augmenting the NYPD's anti-noise initiative, Operation Silent Night. Launched in 2002, Silent Night blanketed 24 of the most raucous city neighborhoods with sound-meter-wielding cops, resulting in more than 34,000 criminal-court summonses.
Inexplicably, the mayor has refused to do anything about the most infuriating urban noise pollutant of all: car alarms. As anybody jolted awake at 3 AM can tell you, these devices can shriek at noise levels up to 125 decibels, as loud as a jackhammer going off outside your window. Their electronic hysteria shreds civility and keeps many a New Yorker from getting a good night's sleep.
Car alarms would be hard to defend even if they did cut car-theft rates, as their makers claim. But they don't. Professional car thieves can disable audio alarms in seconds. And the false-alarm rate—upward of 95 percent—means that nobody calls the cops when an alarm goes off. Car alarm manufacturers have never been able to present any proof that their products deter crime. Now that silent and effective anti-car-theft options exist, like the factory-installed immobilizers that shut down a car's ignition system if someone tries to start it without using the right computer-encoded key, there's no reason not to sweep car alarms into history's trash heap. (See “Let's Ban Car Alarms,” Winter 2002.)
Far from going after car alarms, however, the Bloomberg administration has defended them, claiming, incorrectly, that they help fight car theft. This August, the mayor vetoed a city council bill that merely sought to make illegal the installation and sale of audio alarms that blast for longer than three minutes or that are triggered by motion-detector devices—alarms whose use in the city has been against the law since 1993. The city council overrode the veto in October.
If the mayor really wants to make Gotham quieter, he should stop defending car alarms and instead push for a comprehensive ban on their use within city limits. With mayoral backing, a ban would likely win city council approval. It would certainly please a lot of bleary-eyed New Yorkers. And after all, we have found a more successful way of fighting crime than impotently shrieking about it.