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Responses to the Problem of Loud Car Stereos

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following set of possible responses provides a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These responses are drawn from the few existing research studies, police reports and journalistic accounts of police practices regarding loud car stereos. In spite of the fact that loud car stereos are a common problem, there are no published studies that evaluate the effectiveness of various responses to the problem. With this caution in mind, you may apply several of these responses to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.

Some response strategies that have been proposed may have merit, but because they do not appear to have been adopted, they are not presented as currently viable options. These include proposals to ban the manufacture of car stereos that can produce very loud sound,9 and to hold car stereo manufacturers civilly liable for noise-related harm caused by their products.10 These proposals would compel manufacturers to make quieter products. Other measures that can effectively reduce noise levels, such as sound barriers and noise-canceling technology (anti-sound waves that effectively cancel out sound waves), do not seem to hold much promise against mobile sound sources such as car stereos.

Enforcement of Noise Laws

A preliminary word of caution is due regarding enforcing noise laws to address loud car stereos: You should guard against unfairly targeting any racial or ethnic group, and be aware of public perceptions regarding biased enforcement.11

1. Enforcing laws that prohibit plainly audible car stereos. Some statutes and ordinances prohibit any noise that is plainly audible from a specified distance.† Most laws of this sort do not require that the music lyrics or melody be intelligible; the bass vibrations alone can suffice. The specified distances vary across jurisdictions, ranging from 15 to 100 feet, depending on how restrictive communities choose to be.12 The most restrictive of the plainly audible laws say that the sound cannot be audible to anyone other than the vehicle occupants. The specified distances can vary by time of day, typically with shorter distances set for nighttime hours. The advantage of such laws is that they do not require expensive monitoring equipment and the requisite training. Several courts have upheld the plainly audible standard for a noise ordinance in the face of legal challenges.†† A disadvantage to plainly audible standards is that enforcers must measure distances, something not easily done while a car is moving. But, with a little training, enforcers can learn to estimate distances.

† Many statutes and ordinances regulating noise can be conveniently accessed through the website of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Vermont. See www.nonoise.org.

†† See the State v. Ewing, 914 P. 2d 549, Haw. 1996 finding that a plainly audible standard is not unconstitutionally vague.

2. Enforcing laws that establish specific decibel limits for car stereos. Some statutes and ordinances set specific decibel limits, measured at specific distances from the source, for various noise sources, including car stereos. These laws are referred to as performance standard laws. The typical limit for car stereos is around 75 to 80 decibels, measured at various specified distances from the car. The advantage of this type of law is that it is specific and objective. Among the disadvantages is that it requires expensive monitoring equipment and the requisite training, and since cars with loud stereos are often moving, it is difficult to obtain a valid reading of the noise level.13 Also, background noise can confound noise readings, and some decibel scales do not adequately record the low-frequency sounds common to loud car stereos. The technical requirements necessary to take readings and defend them against legal challenges necessarily limit the number of officials who can enforce performance standard laws.
3. Enhancing penalties or lowering tolerance levels for loud car stereo violations that occur in specified zones. Because loud noise is especially harmful to certain groups of people, such as schoolchildren, hospital patients and the mentally ill, and because complaints about loud car stereos often are concentrated in certain residential neighborhoods, it may make sense to enhance the penalties for violations in areas with vulnerable populations.14
4. Enhancing penalties for repeat offenders. In many jurisdictions, laws give judges the discretion to apply harsher penalties for repeat offenders. Higher fines and seizure of car stereo equipment may be reserved for repeat offenders.
5. Impounding cars with loud stereos as evidence. Some jurisdictions, such as New York City15 and Chicago,16 authorize police to impound cars with loud stereos and to hold the cars as evidence until the citation has been adjudicated. The impoundment gives the offender extra incentive to appear in court and/or pay the fine and, at a minimum, removes the car from the streets for a brief time.
6. Holding car owners liable for loud car stereo violations. In most jurisdictions, the driver is liable for loud car stereo violations. But because police are seldom present when loud car stereos are disturbing others, offenders often avoid being cited. Under what is known as the owner onus principle, the registered vehicle owner could be cited in the same way as with a parking citation. Vehicle owners could then transfer the liability for the citation if they showed proof that someone else was operating the vehicle at the time of the offense.17 The advantage of owner onus laws is that police would not have to conduct traffic stops to issue citations: citizen complaints could form the basis for citations, and agencies other than the police department could assume some responsibility for enforcing the law.
7. Obtaining nuisance abatement orders against loud car stereo owners. Many jurisdictions have detailed nuisance abatement laws and procedures that can potentially be applied to chronic offenders. You should consult with local legal counsel to determine whether and when nuisance abatement is appropriate.
8. Sentencing offenders to listen to music they do not like. This somewhat tongue-in-cheek penalty has actually been imposed by courts in a few jurisdictions.18

Warnings and Education

9. Issuing written warnings. Written warnings or notices of violations, commonly used by health inspectors and by police for vehicle defects, can be applied to loud car stereo violations, as well. They put offenders on official notice that they are using their car stereos inappropriately, and give them an opportunity to modify the equipment, if necessary. An alternative is for police to mail warning letters to the registered vehicle owners. Some jurisdictions encourage complaining citizens to maintain logs that record the date, time, place, and vehicle identifiers associated with loud car stereo incidents. Police mail warning letters on the basis of these complaint logs.† This strategy serves two purposes: It can significantly increase the number of incidents that receive some sort of official response, and it can reduce complainants' level of annoyance by giving them a greater sense of control over the problem (recall from the earlier discussion that a low sense of control increases annoyance). If the offenders are teenagers, you might consider seeking their parents' help in getting their children to comply with the law. Official warnings might also be publicly broadcast on popular music radio stations or issued through other mass media formats.

† The Savannah, Georgia, Police Department has adopted this strategy.

10. Requiring car stereo dealers to provide customers with warnings about the health and legal consequences of playing car stereos loudly. Car stereo dealers can either be required or merely requested to provide their customers with written information about the health hazards and legal consequences of playing their car stereos too loudly. Police can support such efforts by supplying dealers with printed information about local laws and police policies regarding loud car stereos.††

†† The Savannah Police Department is one agency that supplies dealers with warning notices about local noise laws.

11. Posting warning signs in areas where loud car stereos are common. Warning signs, conspicuously posted in areas where complaints about loud car stereos are common, put potential offenders on notice of the possible consequences for violations.

Conspicuously posted warning signs put potential offenders on notice of the possible consequences for violations of loud car stereo violations. Credit: Bob Morris

12. Holding public demonstrations regarding loud car stereo violations. Police can hold demonstrations for car stereo enthusiasts, possibly in conjunction with sponsored competitions or other events, to better communicate laws and policies.† Many car stereo enthusiasts participate in competitions and events sponsored by the car stereo industry. Some enthusiasts may not genuinely appreciate how their hobby disturbs others, or may not know the noise levels at which they are breaking the law.

† The St. Petersburg, Florida, Police Department held public demonstrations as part of their "Operation Tone Down" (Gray 1999[Full text]).

Response With Limited Effectiveness

13. Enforcing laws that require police to make subjective judgments about noise. Statutes and ordinances that require officers to determine whether noise is "loud and raucous," "unreasonable," "excessive," or "disruptive" are vulnerable to legal challenges on the grounds that they are vague and overbroad.20 Noise laws should be neutral as to the information content of the noise, as well. For example, they should not prohibit music that is "offensive" or "obscene." Laws that do are vulnerable to legal challenges on free speech grounds. Nor should noise laws apply only to personal vehicles; they should apply equally to commercial vehicles that use sound-amplifying equipment, such as ice cream trucks.21
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