Noise complaints constitute 85 percent of the calls made to the New York Police Department’s “Quality of Life Hotline.” And lots of those calls, police say, concern car alarms, which shriek and whoop at noise levels up to 125 decibels—as loud as a jet taking off. The alarms frazzle New Yorkers’ nerves and, when they go off late at night, rob them of sleep. Their dystopian screeching also creates what criminologists call a “broken window” effect, encouraging lawlessness by sending the message that no one is in charge of maintaining public order.
These infernal noisemakers would be hard to justify even if they did prevent auto theft, as their makers claim. But they don’t: because of their 95-percent false-alarm rate, nobody hears a car alarm blaring and rushes to call the cops. In any case, audio alarms pose no obstacle to the professional “Gone-in-60-Seconds” car thieves responsible for most car thefts these days. Small wonder that nobody, including alarm makers, has ever come up with believable evidence proving that alarms are effective. Making noise alarms even more pointless, new auto-security alternatives are both effective and silent, like the factory-installed immobilizers that disable a car’s ignition system if someone tries to start the vehicle without using the right computer-encoded key.
In sum: nothing would be lost and much gained if car alarms disappeared.
Bleary-eyed New Yorkers will thus be happy to hear that, thanks to the grassroots efforts of Transportation Alternatives and Silent Majority, a new citizens’ group inspired in part by City Journal’s article “Let’s Ban Car Alarms” (Winter 2002), the New York City Council is now considering outlawing the use of alarms within the city, with fines of up to $2,100 for frequent offenders. “The amount of noise in New York is just overwhelming,” Upper East Side councilwoman Eva Moskowitz said in sponsoring the bill, which would make New York the first car-alarm-free municipality in the nation.
A council hearing on car alarms in June showed many members favorably disposed toward a ban. Silent Majority founder Aaron Friedman, a 25-year-old classical music composer who lives in Washington Heights, says he’s talked to council staffers who see enough votes for the measure, though there will be another round of hearings in September. Unfortunately, city representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection and the NYPD testified against a ban, with the cops claiming that alarms provide “a layer of protection” against theft—echoing the groundless assertions of industry lobbyists.
Mayor Bloomberg should get his people—and himself—100 percent behind the legislation. After all, in late 2002, Bloomberg launched “Operation Silent Night”—an initiative that directed cops to crack down on noise violations, blaming car alarms (along with boom boxes and “incomplete construction projects”) for creating “unreasonable noise conditions that affect the quality of life of every New Yorker.”
A strong mayoral push for a ban, given how the City Council is already leaning, would guarantee quieter nights for city residents—and put an end to a completely useless, civility-shredding irritant.