Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

To print this guide, click on your web browser's "Print" icon, or go to the menubar and select "File..Print"

Loud Car Stereos

Guide No. 7 (2001)

by Michael S. Scott

The Problem of Loud Car Stereos

This guide addresses the problem of loud car stereos, one of the most common sources of noise complaints in many jurisdictions. The guide begins by describing the problem and reviewing factors that contribute to it. It then identifies a series of questions that might assist you in analyzing your local problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem and what is known about these from evaluative research and police practice. Throughout this guide, the term loud car stereos is used as a shorthand way of saying car stereos that are played loudly. The problem is attributable mainly to the use of special stereo equipment capable of producing extremely loud sound, rather than factory-installed stereo equipment.

† Sound, noise and annoyance are not the same thing. Sound is merely a physical property entailing sound waves. Noise is unwanted sound. Annoyance is the negative feeling one gets from being exposed to noise. Sound can be measured in terms of its pressure, frequency, variation, character, and quality. Annoyance is a subjective measure.

Most jurisdictions have some form of noise law that regulates loud car stereos. Police are concerned about loud car stereos for two main reasons: 1) they annoy some people, and 2) they inhibit drivers' ability to hear emergency signals on the road. This guide focuses on the annoyance aspect of loud car stereos, rather than the safety aspect, because there is not much published research and practice related to the latter.††

†† Police in Prince William County, Va., demonstrated through controlled tests that loud car stereos impair drivers' ability to hear emergency vehicle sirens, and concluded this is a serious aspect of the problem (Smith 2000).

Loud car stereos can also make another noise problem worse: they can activate some car alarms. In some jurisdictions, drug dealers advertise by cruising neighborhoods with the car stereo turned up loud. In most jurisdictions, the problem of loud car stereos falls to the police to address, primarily because enforcement carries the risk of violent confrontation.†††

††† At least in the United States, noise control has become almost exclusively a matter for local authorities since the federal government drastically cut back funding for noise control in the early 1980s (Sickler-Hart 1997[Full text]; Lief 1994; Schultz 1999; Sedgwick 1991[Full text]).

The problem of loud car stereos is more widespread than a simple tally of complaints would reveal. Perhaps only 5 to 10 percent of people bothered by any type of noise will file an official complaint, because other factors influence people.1 Many citizens are not aware of their legal right to quiet and do not know where they can register a complaint.

Consequently, the volume of official complaints about loud car stereos might indicate the existence of a problem, but not necessarily how intense or widespread it is.

Factors Contributing to the Problem of Loud Car Stereos

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Highly amplified car stereos emit a lot of low-frequency sounds through the systems' woofer speakers. Low-frequency noise is usually found to be more annoying than highfrequency noise at similar volume.2 The vibrations caused by the low-frequency sound waves can often be felt in addition to being heard. They cause glass and ceramics to rattle, compounding the annoyance.3

Boom car's trunk speakers

Boom car's trunk speakers

Playing car stereos loudly can be an act of social defiance by some, or merely inconsiderate behavior by others. For yet others, it is a passionate hobby, an important part of their cultural identity and lifestyle. Judging by the sales marketing of car stereo manufacturers and dealers, the interest in car stereo competitions and the sums of money spent on car stereos, police are confronting a popular and lucrative phenomenon. It is not easy to change the behavior of those who see loud car stereos as an important part of their lifestyle.

† In car stereo competitions, usually sponsored by car stereo manufacturers or distributors, participants receive prizes for the loudest car stereos.

Overexposure to noise is now understood to have a number of negative health and behavioral effects.4 Loud car stereos most obviously affect the car occupants' hearing. Noise from a variety of sources, including loud car stereos, can cause hearing loss, disturb sleep, increase stress, make people irritable, and make naturally aggressive people more aggressive. It can make people less likely to help others, and less likely to sit outdoors or participate in social activities. It can compel people to move out of neighborhoods they otherwise like, and thereby depress property values. Some people, such as schoolchildren, hospital patients and the mentally ill, are especially harmed by exposure to loud noise (although loud car stereos may not be a major noise source for these subpopulations).5

How annoyed people get about noise depends on a number of factors,6 including the following:

Act of defiance

Act of defiance

Applying these factors to loud car stereos, you can see how the same sound can affect people quite differently: some will enjoy it, while others will hate it.

† Extremely loud music may actually increase adrenaline in some listeners or cause fluids in the ear to shift, either of which can create a pleasurable dizziness and euphoric feeling (Sedgwick 1991[Full text]; Cooke and McCampbell 1992). Obviously, complainants experience no such pleasure.

People respond to noise in various ways. Some people complain to authorities, some take steps to insulate themselves, some adapt to the noise, and some move away from the noise. Those who complain greatly appreciate effective responses from authorities; no response or ineffective responses are often harshly criticized.8

Related Problems

Police are also frequently called upon to address other sources of noise, each calling for its own analysis and responses. Among the related problems not covered in this guide are:

The traffic safety concerns created by playing car stereos loudly are similar to those associated with other forms of inattentive driving, including the use of cellular phones while driving.

Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description of loud car stereos. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.

Asking the Right Questions

The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your particular problem of loud car stereos, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on. Community surveys or meetings will likely be necessary to answer many of these questions because many complaints are not officially registered, and existing records may not capture all the information.

Incidents

Victims

Offenders

Locations/Times

Current Responses

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. All measures should be taken in both the target area and the surrounding area. (For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.)

The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to loud car stereos:

† A survey of 20 Chicago car stereo dealers conducted by the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association reportedly revealed that their sales declined by 30 percent— and several dealers went out of business—in the period immediately following passage of a new city ordinance regulating loud car stereos (Colarossi 1998). These findings should be considered with caution, as car stereo dealers used the study results to oppose new noise legislation.

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

  1. 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, Ga., Police Department has adopted this strategy.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.
  4. 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, Fla., Police Department held public demonstrations as part of their "Operation Tone Down" (Gray 1999[Full text]).

Response With Limited Effectiveness

  1. 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

Additional Resources

The Noise Pollution Clearinghouse — Quiet Zone newsletter, vol. 2, Spring 2002.

Model Ordinances

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Model Community Noise Control Ordinance

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection

Websites

Summary of Responses

The table below summarizes the responses to loud car stereos, the mechanism by which they are intended to work, the conditions under which they ought to work best, and some factors you should consider before implementing a particular response. 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.

Enforcement of Noise Laws
# Response How It Works Works Best If... Considerations
1 Enforcing laws that prohibit plainly audible car stereos Deters offenders through civil fines …there is adequate enforcement May require some officer training to estimate distances
2 Enforcing laws that establish specific decibel limits for car stereos Deters offenders through civil fines …sound- monitoring equipment is properly calibrated, and officers are properly trained Difficult to obtain valid readings from moving sound sources; requires expensive sound-monitoring equipment and officer training; background noise can confound readings
3 Enhancing penalties or lowering tolerance levels for loud car stereo violations that occur in specified zones Discourages potential offenders from playing car stereos loudly in areas with especially vulnerable people; potentially displaces offenders to areas where noise is less likely to disturb others

…potential offenders are adequately notified of special zones (through signs, publicity and warnings), and there is adequate enforcement

Requires legislative authorization
4 Enhancing penalties for repeat offenders Deters chronic offenders through escalating sanctions …judges are willing to impose increased sanctions Some chronic offenders are deeply committed to loud car stereos as part of their lifestyle, and are not easily deterred
5 Impounding cars with loud stereos as evidence Temporarily removes cars from public places; deters offenders by temporarily depriving them of their enjoyment …there is an efficient system for towing and impounding vehicles Impoundment for evidence should be equally applied to all vehicles, not used as extra punishment applied solely at officers' discretion
6 Holding car owners liable for loud car stereo violations Allows enforcement without stopping and identifying the driver; encourages car owners to ensure their vehicles are used responsibly …the general public perceives owner liability for loud car stereo violations as fair, and citations can be issued based on complainants' testimony Requires legislative authorization
7 Obtaining nuisance abatement orders against loud car stereo owners Deters offenders through a range of civil remedies …applied against chronic offenders, and there is an efficient system for filing nuisance abatement actions Must prove the nuisance is ongoing, rather than an isolated incident
8 Sentencing offenders to listen to music they do not like Deters offenders by exposing them to a similar annoyance and requiring them to spend time complying with the sentence …judges are willing to impose this sanction (and have a sense of humor) Is more likely to generate publicity than to deter offenders
Warnings and Education
# Response How It Works Works Best If... Considerations
9 Issuing written warnings Puts offenders on official notice of legal restrictions, and that sound levels exceed the limits; gives unwitting offenders the opportunity to comply with the law …there is a system for tracking official warnings, so that repeat offenders are ultimately subject to formal sanctions Costs of creating and maintaining a warning record keeping system
10 Requiring car stereo dealers to provide customers with warnings about the health and legal consequences of playing car stereos loudly Puts customers on official notice of legal restrictions and encourages their voluntary compliance …car stereo dealers willingly cooperate Modest costs of printing and distributing information
11 Posting warning signs in areas where loud car stereos are common Warns offenders of legal restrictions and encourages their voluntary compliance …signs are conspicuously posted in areas prone to loud car stereos Costs of manufacturing and posting signs
12 Holding public demonstrations regarding loud car stereo violations Encourages compliance by giving potential offenders a better understanding of how the law applies to their car stereos, and by allowing them to interact with the police in a nonadversarial setting …demonstrations are well attended and held in conjunction with car stereo competitions and events Cooperating with the police may run counter to what some car stereo enthusiasts see as the purpose of having high powered car stereos
Response With Limited Effectiveness
# Response How It Works Works Best If... Considerations
13 Enforcing laws that require police to make subjective judgments about noise Police must judge not only the sound level, but also the content's quality or effect on others …local courts have upheld police enforcement of this type of law Requires highly subjective police judgments; such laws are vulnerable to legal challenges on grounds they are vague or overbroad

Endnotes

[1] Berglund, Lindvall and Schwela (1995) [Full text].

[2] Berglund, Lindvall and Schwela (1995) [Full text].

[3] Sedgwick (1991) [Full text].

[4] Berglund, Lindvall and Schwela (1995) [Full text]; Zwerling (1996); Sedgwick (1991) [Full text].

[5] Berglund, Lindvall and Schwela (1995) [Full text].

[6] Berglund, Lindvall and Schwela (1995) [Full text].

[7] Berglund, Lindvall and Schwela (1995) [Full text]; Zwerling (1996).

[8] Berglund, Lindvall and Schwela (1995) [Full text].

[9] New South Wales Environmental Protection Authority (2000) [Full text].

[10] Lief (1994).

[11] See, for example, Crawford (2000).

[12] Noise Consultancy (2001) [Full text]; Zwerling et al. (n.d.) [Full text].

[13] Noise Consultancy (2001) [Full text]; Zwerling et al. (n.d.) [Full text].

[14] Mancuso (2000). See also Berglund, Lindvall and Schwela (1995) [Full text].

[15] New York City Police Department (1994); Bratton (1994).

[16] Colarossi (1998).

[17] New South Wales Environmental Protection Authority (2000) [Full text].

[18] Schultz (1999), reporting on penalties in Fort Lupton, Colo.

[19] Zwerling (1996).

[20] Schultz (1999).

[21] Zwerling et al. (n.d.) [Full text].

References

Berglund, B., T. Lindvall and D. Schwela (1995). Guidelines for Community Noise. Geneva: World Health Organization. [Full Text]

Bratton, W. (1994). "The New York City Police Department's Civil Enforcement of Quality-of-Life Crimes." Journal of Law and Policy 3(2):447-464.

Colarossi, A. (1998). "Chicago Alderman Seeks To Soften City's Noise Ordinance, Claiming Ban on Loud Car Music Hurts Retailers." Chicago Tribune, Sept. 30.

Cooke, P., and M. McCampbell (1992). "Noises Out: What It's Doing to You" and "Noises In: The Culture of Victimization." New York, Nov. 2.

Crawford, C. (2000). "Race and Pretextual Stops: Noise Enforcement in Midwest City." Social Pathology: A Journal of Review 6(3):213-227.

Gray, L. (1999). "Police To Target Loud Car Stereos." St. Petersburg Times, Aug. 24. [Full Text]

Lief, J. (1994). "Insuring Domestic Tranquility Through Quieter Products: A Proposed Product-Nuisance Tort." Cardozo Law Review 16:595-648.

Mancuso, S. (2000). "Paulsboro Lowers the Volume: Loud Music and Other Noises Will Now Be Regulated in Response to Residents' Complaints." Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 8.

New South Wales Environmental Protection Authority (2000). Proposed Protection of the Environment Operations (Noise Control) Regulation 2000. Regulatory impact statement. Sydney, Australia : New South Wales Environmental Protection Authority, Noise Policy Branch. [Full Text]

New York City Police Department (1994). Police Strategy No. 5: Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York. New York: City of New York.

Noise Consultancy (2001). Code Drafting Tip for 2001: "Boom Cars-Boom Boxes." Somerset, N.J.: The Noise Consultancy. [Full Text]

Schultz, S. (1999). "Battle of the Boom Box." Governing 13(Oct.):37-38.

Sedgwick, J. (1991). "Cut Out That Racket." The Atlantic Monthly (Nov.):50-55. [Full Text]

Sickler-Hart, D. (1997). Analysis of Albuquerque, New Mexico's Ambient Noise and Albuquerque Environmental Health's Noise Control Program. Albuquerque, N.M.: Citizens Noise Advisory Group of Greater Albuquerque. [Full Text]

Smith, G. (2000). "Proposed Noise Ordinance Amendments." Internal memorandum to the chief of police, Prince William County, VA. May 17.

Zwerling, E. (1996). "Turning Down the Volume: Effective Strategies for Community Noise Enforcement." Police Chief 63(12):53, 54-55, 59.

Zwerling, E., D. Pinto, P. Hanna, J. Lepis, and B. Turpin (n.d.). Local Noise Enforcement Options and Model Noise Ordinance: With Preapproved Language for the State of New Jersey. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Cooperative Extension, Rutgers University. [Full Text]

Related POP Projects

Important!

The quality and focus of these submissions vary considerably. With the exception of those submissions selected as winners or finalists, these documents are unedited and are reproduced in the condition in which they were submitted. They may nevertheless contain useful information or may report innovative projects.

Cruising Abatement Project [Goldstein Award Finalist], Santa Ana Police Department, 1997

Main Street Crime Watch Project, Longmont Police Department, 2000

South Seneca Cruising Project, Wichita Police Department, 1998

The McDonald's Nuisance, Lancashire Constabulary, 2000