Automakers contribute to conflicts over loud exhausts  

Photo credit: Torsten Dettlaff

by Jeanine Botta, MPH, Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

In recent weeks, a New York Times feature and ongoing coverage in Seattle’s KOMO News told the story of a Seattle resident who drives a Dodge Charger Hellcat through the city’s streets late at night, speeding, waking residents with the car’s illegally-modified exhaust, and recording and posting his activities on Instagram. On the other side of the country in New York, there are reports of a driver who has been disrupting the sleep of Roosevelt Island residents with sounds of animals and sirens broadcasting from the car’s sound system at all hours, eluding law enforcement for two years. 

The Covid-19 pandemic changed the soundscape, for better and for worse. Around the world, people appreciated quiet in neighborhoods with less vehicle activity during the start of lockdown. But this was soon followed by increased use of loud modified mufflers and exhaust systems, straight piping, amplified sound systems and drag racing. 

Early in the pandemic, people were showing up at community meetings in my New York City neighborhood to ask for help with vehicle noise that disrupted sleep and affected quality of life. More recently, I attended a police department community meeting where roughly 10 people showed up to request help dealing with a driver who was violating noise and safety regulations.

The difficulty enforcing the law in the Seattle case is especially troubling because the driver regularly posts his illegal activities on social media. He has explained to police that his social media posts are a source of income. Some of his neighbors have appealed to Meta, the company that owns Instagram, to take down the driver’s account — to no avail.

These are just a few examples of conflicts between neighbors over vehicle noise – all cases involving owners who modify their cars to increase sound, in addition to driving dangerously. Unfortunately, automakers are joining the fray by designing cars with loud engine noise in a nod to nostalgia for sounds that preceded quiet internal combustion engines, hybrids, and electric cars. This can include stock engines designed to be loud, and sound effects that are added to electric vehicles and broadcast from speakers.

I wrote about advocates’ struggles for the passage of the U.S. Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, and my impatience with journalists describing discordant sound effects as being in compliance with the act’s requirement for electric vehicle sounds. I also wrote about the Dodge Charger Daytona SRT concept car that featured a 126-decibel sound effect. Shortly before reports began to break about the Seattle case and all the conflict it brought, auto news outlets announced the electric Charger’s release, with its promised sound effects.  

Whether a driver is ticketed by a traffic officer or a sound violation is captured by a noise camera, courts are sustaining violations of codes that address exhaust sound levels. Drivers argue that noise cameras and other enforcement are only intended to generate tickets for illegally modified exhausts, not factory equipped stock exhausts. But courts are clarifying that according to certain noise codes, there are no such exceptions. 

It is bewildering that automakers, trade associations, and regulators do not address vehicle noise, and that a vast array of sound effects continue to be created – especially given the painstaking years long rulemaking process that led to the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act. And, it is even more bewildering as much is already known (and more is learned) about the harms of chronic noise exposure on health. It is far wiser to prevent the existence of disturbing noise levels than to have to deal with its effects after the fact. Automakers should not create sound systems that are likely to exceed legal sound limits.

The Seattle case is ongoing and remains in the news. Difficulty enforcing multiple laws, in spite of ticketing a driver, is not uncommon. When I was working on a vehicle noise issue with police at my local precinct, an officer explained that some drivers consider paying fines and paying to reclaim a seized vehicle to just be part of the job.

Share this article:

Article Categories

Search Articles