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Loud Car Stereos –
A Dangerous Distraction

By Judy Ellis

We’ve all heard them: The tricked-out cars that pull up near us at traffic lights with the stereo pumped up and the subwoofers in the trunk going thumpathumpathumpa. Sometimes it’s so loud it makes your head hurt, or your eyes jiggle in their sockets. People have found themselves disoriented, or think perhaps they’re having a stroke.

Across the country, law enforcement, educators, and health care and emergency service workers are looking for ways to turn down the volume and turn off the vibrations because this so-called “hobby” is dangerous, unhealthy and anti-social on many levels. And it shows no signs of going away, as the manufacturers find new and innovative ways to sell noise to our youth.

What are the effects of this dangerous practice?

Loud music from car stereos has been identified as one of the many activities that distract drivers—especially young drivers—who are already chatting with their friends in the back seat, talking on a cell phone, and/or eating. One study from Nova Scotia found that when the decibels inside a car pass 90, the driver’s reaction time is impaired by 20 percent. And these are teenagers whose reaction time, ability to read the road, and powers of concentration aren’t the best to start with. Parents who indulge their teens by buying them this equipment have no idea that they are actually endangering their children’s lives—and those around them.

Hearing damage is inevitable. Audiologists know that loss of hearing begins within two seconds of exposure to more than 90 decibels. It is estimated that one out of eight American school children is now showing signs of hearing impairment, much of it from iPods and similar personal listening devices. As the young students get behind the wheel, they get the same dangerous noise from the car stereo, compounding the initial hearing damage while shutting themselves off from the sirens of approaching emergency vehicles.

Even worse than the damage done to the hearing of teens is the brain damage being done to small babies trapped in the back seats of boomcars, their heads only inches from the source of the noise. Five- and six-year-olds are showing up in school with learning disabilities associated not only with impaired hearing, but also with brain damage from their parents’ or siblings’ reckless addiction to noise.

And it is an addiction. One study found that the exposure to louder and louder music parallels alcoholism, where the need for whatever feeds the habit grows continually greater. So if it sounds as though the noise is getting worse, in fact it is.

Another side effect of loud car noise is violence, both on the part of the boomer and the person “boomed.” The human body reads loud noise as an attack and defends itself with a surge of adrenaline. Adrenaline in turn creates the “flight or fight” response so that the boomcar driver, already in an aggressive state when approached by a citizen or law enforcement, often turns on that person with hostility and anger far out of proportion to the crime of which he’s accused. The result is that on the average of three times a month, somewhere in this country someone is beaten, shot or stabbed over loud noise.

And the habit of “booming” is associated with other crimes. In Florida, it is believed that one car in four stopped for noise violations will contain drugs, guns or persons wanted on warrants. This is one reason, besides the obvious social downside of booming, that law enforcement should be encouraged to ticket this offense.

Supporters of this indulgence refer to it as a “hobby” and are often heard to say that it’s better than having the kids running around doing drugs. In fact, in many cases, they’re doing both! Adherents also like to cite the First Amendment as giving them the right to make as much noise as they like, but the desire to draw attention to oneself this way should never be confused with freedom of speech and, more importantly, almost everywhere in the country it is illegal.

The social aspects of booming are numerous and include such little-recognized factors as the increased drain on police resources as they are called upon to respond to noise problems. Nearly 80 percent of the phone calls to non-emergency police departments in this country are for noise-related issues. There are also effects on communities as people move away from noise or retreat into their homes, unable to enjoy an informal gathering on the porch because of what is going by in the street. Everywhere, people complain that they haven’t had a decent night’s sleep for years.

Pressured by harassed citizens, many communities are turning up the heat on these offenders. Fines are going up, in some places exceeding $1,000. Several cities (Peoria and Springfield, IL, Contra Costa, CA, and Sarasota, FL, for example) now impound cars caught booming. Jail time is not unheard of. In states or cities where the audible distance allowed has been reduced to 25 feet or less, law enforcement has a fairly easy time identifying where the noise is coming from, and the trend toward these shorter distances is growing. One town forbids anynoise audible from the car.

Soft letter programs also are growing in popularity. Citizens report the tag of an offender; the police send out a non-punitive warning letter, quoting the law and requesting that the boomer be more respectful of those around him. These letters have the added advantage of sometimes falling into the hands of the boomer’s parents. Such a program began in St. Petersburg, FL, in February 2008, has spread to three neighboring cities, and is under consideration by two more.

The loud stereo inside a teen’s car is one of the things that can be controlled—through law enforcement, through education of parents, and through insurance companies’ ratcheting up the premiums of people cited multiple times for noise offenses. If your life is being disrupted by this kind of noise pollution, contact your local law enforcement and discuss with them ways to address the problem. You can also visit www.NoiseOFF.org for more information about what you can do to bring peace and quiet back to your neighborhood.

Judy Ellis is a coordinator for Noise Free Florida, a chapter of Noise Free America, one of many non-profit, national grass-roots organizations working to reduce all forms of noise pollution.

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