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Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

By Novella Carpenter

I returned to my hometown in the rainy Northwest for Thanksgiving. For a reason that I couldn't immediately pinpoint, I felt relaxed, I slept like a baby at night and I could drink a million cups of coffee without developing my usual pounding heartbeat.

What had changed? The blissful quiet of a rural area. Being a city woman, I'm not used to this deafening silence. My neighbor in the city uses his horn as a doorbell. My house sits next to a rumbling thoroughfare, complete with boom cars and deafening stereo sounds. The unsweet jingle of a chronic car alarm wakes me up every morning at 7:30am. According to a Cornell study of a few years ago, noises like this can be a stressor, causing high blood pressure and the release of stress hormones. Indeed, the word noise is derived from the Latin word nausea, meaning seasickness. And I don't even live in a very big city. Imagine New York City's noise sickness.

The No. 1 quality-of-life complaint of New York residents isn't prostitution, graffiti or the presence of the squeegee man (more on him some other time)--it's noise. Not surprisingly, the source of many complaints is the mighty car, with its honking, blaring alarms and, of course, the dreaded "boom car" stereo system. It was because of noises like this that mayor Michael Bloomberg began Operation Silent Night in 2002. He targeted the noisiest areas in New York: Astoria in Queens, Flatbush in Brooklyn and Manhattan's Greenwich Village among others, then placed cops on the corners, and they began handing out tickets.

Citations were given out en masse for excessive honking, too-loud car stereos and rumbling motorcycle engines. According to the mayor's office in June of this year, since the inception of Operation Silent Night, 3,706 noise summonses, 80,056 parking violations, 40,779 moving violations and 252 Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) noise violations have been handed out. This effort further extended a law Rudolph Giuliani enacted in 1997 to double and triple fines for cars with stereos that disturbed neighbors. Though Mr. Giuliani defeated subway graffiti, he still couldn't take down noise. Of the nonemergency calls to the NYPD today, 85 percent are related to noise complaints. Traffic and honking, Bloomberg says, "create the sense of disorder that can lead to more serious crime."

Of course the problem isn't just in New York. According to Noise Free America, a Louisiana-based nonprofit devoted to fighting noise pollution, "In the last 15 years, noise levels have risen sixfold in major U.S. cities. The Census Bureau reports that noise is Americans' top complaint about their neighborhoods, and the major reason for wanting to move." For this reason, most cities have followed the Plainly Audible Standard, which allows police to hand out tickets to cars that can be heard from a specific distance, usually in the range of 15 to 100 feet. The problem, as with everything, is with enforcement. If it isn't a priority for the city, the noises will continue. There are now signs posted in neighborhoods in New York that read, $350 Penalty No Honking, but when I asked my friend and NYC resident Adam about the ban, he reported, "No honking? Of course people honk!"

As cities get bigger, more people--and more cars--are inevitable. But what about the noise? Will the din become unbearable? What have cities across the world done to alleviate the problem? For the next three. columns, I plan to examine the three biggest noisemakers: car alarms, horns and honkers, and finally, car stereos. What is their history and their future, and how can they finally be silenced?

Got an auditory horror story? Email me at [email protected]

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From the December 8-15, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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