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When is the last time you heard an alarm and thought, 'I'd better call the cops, someone's trying to steal my neighbor's car'?

By Novella Carpenter

Saw a sad sight today, reminding me to get to writing my column about noise pollution and car alarms. There she was: a honking, lights-flashing Ford Taurus being pulled by a tow truck. The car's protests were like an old grandmother's plea for help: "Someone stole my purse and put me in a headlock!" But did anyone care? No. We just clapped our hands over our ears and watched the thing get dragged away.

And so goes the life of a car with a blaring alarm system. It may seem like a theft deterrent with those big noises and bright parking lights a-flashing, but in reality, it just drives everyone crazy. Take, for example, vigilantes in New Zealand who grease the windows of unattended vehicles sounding their alarms. Or the New York City citizens who, after being tortured by the auditory assaults, have taken to attacking offending cars, slashing tires or breaking windows.

Though this kind of retribution borders on insanity, studies have shown that loud noises like car alarms really aren't good for your body or mental health. Some car alarm systems, like the Viper or the Hellfire, kick out 125 decibels of noise, equivalent to standing near a jet taking off or a speaker in a dance club. Loud, startling noises like this are enough to cause a severe stress response, marked by blood surging to the brain, stress hormones released into the bloodstream and a need to vent. So people attacking a car may not be so crazy. Other studies link stress to repeated exposure, and stress is a contributing factor to heart disease, gastrointestinal problems and cancer.

But isn't this the price we pay to keep our cars safe? Well, no. Because car alarms don't deter crime. When the car alarm was first created, probably a lo-fi trip system that set off an alarm when the door was opened, it worked stunningly. What a surprise! No car thief in their right mind would attempt such a heist. Problem is, we have gotten desensitized over time. When is the last time you heard an alarm and thought, "I'd better call the cops, someone's trying to steal my neighbor's car"?

Instead you roll over in bed and curse the car owner for his overly sensitive alarm system, probably triggered by a falling leaf. You're not alone: only 1 percent of people polled by an insurance company study said they would call the police if they heard a car alarm going off. The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) calls this the "boy who cried wolf effect." Their studies of the effectiveness of car alarms--which were carried out for insurance companies that worry about average loss payments--concluded that there is "no overall reduction in theft losses for vehicles with such alarms."

Not only do average people not care about an alarm sounding, car thieves have become quite agile at disarming them. "Alarmingly Useless," a new report put out by the nonprofit Transportation Alternatives in New York City, cited that 80 percent of thieves can and will steal cars with an alarm, and on average it takes a professional two seconds to disarm the alarm. In short, in the arms race of car protection, the car alarm is equivalent to a bayonet.

Still, over a million vehicles in the United States are stolen each year--so what should you do to protect your baby? First, the obvious: park in well-lighted places, close the windows, lock the doors, don't leave your keys in the car, keep your registration with you, don't leave valuables in sight, turn your wheels to make it difficult to tow. Low-tech tools that often are effective include steering wheel locks or an armored steering-column collar that can slow down the hot-wiring process. If you've really got a sweet car, you might need to get an immobilizer. These gems disable the engine if an attempt is made to hot wire the car. Immobilizers cost around $195; about the same price as a car alarm.

If you're being driven crazy by car alarms, take action--no, no, put down that crowbar! Join the car alarm relief group in your community by going to caralarm.meetup.com.

Next week's noisemaker: the almighty horn! Email me at [email protected].

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From the December 15-22, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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