Noise in New York City, like the vibrating drilling of construction or the booming sound of music coming from the apartment next door, isn’t unheard of. It’s more like a defining feature. But loud, startling growls from souped-up cars might finally be meeting their match, as the Department of Environmental Protection prepares to expand its Muffler Noise Pilot Program from a lone location to eight, after a successful trial that wrapped up in June.
The tech that stands up to rogue vehicles is satisfyingly simple: a sound meter and a camera, paired together to catch revelers in the act. “Our district needs this program as quickly as possible,” said Council Member Erik Bottcher, who represents a busy stretch of Manhattan from south of the West Village to Hell’s Kitchen and Columbus Circle.
On September 26, he wrote to DEP Commissioner Rohit Aggarwala to express his support of the crackdown on motor vehicles bucking state law and city code — and to request that at least two of eight new noise-monitoring devices be dedicated to his district. With access to two major throughways from Manhattan to New Jersey, the Lincoln Tunnel and the Holland Tunnel, plus the West Side Highway, Bottcher’s district experiences some of the worst traffic noise in the city.
A Costly Cacophony
The DEP’s pilot program relied on a roadside device that took videos of passing vehicles if they emitted sound at or above 85 decibels from at least 50 feet away. Midtown Manhattan traffic usually clocks in at around 70 to 85 decibels and motorcycles at 88 decibels, according to the DEP. A washing machine or dishwasher, for comparison, measures 78 decibels whereas a “boom box” ranges from 110 to 120 decibels.
Vehicle owners flagged by the tech received notices to have their cars inspected by the DEP, to ensure that they met city and state guidelines. “Vehicles that emit obnoxious levels of noise in violation of state and city law have become a top quality of life concern for many New Yorkers and this technology offers some real promise in helping us to provide some relief for our neighbors,” Aggarwala said when first announcing the pilot program in February.
And fines for those who make too much noise have grown. At the start of the pilot program, first-time offenses cost $220; More recently, new legislation known as the SLEEP Act has begun imposing maximum fines of $1,000 specifically for the use of illegal car parts that make more of a racket. “Every New Yorker deserves to feel safe and comfortable in their community,” Governor Kathy Hochul said when announcing the new legislation in October of last year, “and that includes cracking down on excessively noisy vehicles on our streets.”
As of this May, an additional bill brought forward in the City Council — sponsored by Bottcher and 27 other council members, including Manhattan representatives Gale Brewer, Shaun Abreu, Keith Powers and Julie Menin — proposes doubling certain existing fines for vehicles making too much noise. Maximum fines would be in the thousands-of-dollars range; it’s a measure to be deployed only if necessary, according to Bottcher.
“Fines are only effective if there’s enforcement,” he told Chelsea News in a statement. “I’d like to get these sound meters up and give the current fines a chance to work ... If the violations continue, we have our bill ready to go.”
Residents “Pay The Price”
In addition to requesting that at least two of the DEP’s sound-catching devices be installed in his district, Bottcher is also proposing that the scope of the project be expanded to include other kinds of bothersome noises, like those from “unnecessary honking” and loud stereos. “Excessive vehicle noise is having a deleterious effect on our community,” he wrote in his letter to Aggarwala.
On roads with speed limits of 35 miles per hour or less, the city’s Noise Code stipulates that any noise from a vehicle that weighs under 10,000 pounds shouldn’t be perceptible from at least 150 feet away (or 200 feet away, in the case of motorcycles).
But during the start of the pandemic in 2020, complaints against traffic noise reached a new high, with 1,433 made to 311 in May, according to an analysis of data by The City. The complaints have ping-ponged drastically since; a low of 509 complaints in February of 2021 shot back up to a new record of 1,919 by May of that year, and back down again to 541 last February. Since 2018, The City reported, Hell’s Kitchen has been home to the most complaints of any neighborhood across the boroughs.
Bottcher’s district experiences a large influx of commuters each day — many of whom drive to and from their workplaces. “Our local residents are the ones who pay the price for all the noise that causes,” Bottcher said. “Then at night, when our streets are more empty, drivers enjoy joyriding and drag racing through the streets of [Midtown].”
So far, catching the culprits has proven tricky. “Enforcing noise violations manually is an incredibly cumbersome and difficult process for the NYPD,” Bottcher said. “There are a limited number of sound meters and, in order to prioritize enforcement on noise violations, we remove an officer from the beat. As we’ve seen from speed cameras, automated enforcement is an effective and efficient tool for enforcement of these types of violations.”
Fun, At The Risk Of Health
Not everyone, though, is keen on quieting down. One Change.org petition against the SLEEP Act, started by Phillip Franklin, has garnered over 1,200 signatures. In the petition, Franklin describes himself as one of many “car enthusiasts” who “modify and personalize our vehicles as a hobby, to get away from the stress of everyday life.”
In some situations, operating a loud car could be considered a safety precaution. “Having a quieter vehicle can actually be dangerous, as someone constantly looking at their phone will often not notice you,” Franklin wrote, “therefore increasing the chance of a collision. A reasonably loud exhaust or vehicle helps keep both the driver and a pedestrian alert at all times.”
But it’s also about pleasure. “Imagine driving a car with the stereos bumping on a nice day outside only to get a fine,” the petition poses.
Proponents of the crackdown against loud street traffic point to a slew of negative health outcomes associated with sound overload. “Noise is so much more than a quality of life issue,” Bottcher said. He pointed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act, which cites noise pollution as a contributor to health conditions including “stress related illnesses,” elevated blood pressure, hearing loss and other issues like “lost productivity.”
For many, it likely boils down to a fairly universal desire: wanting a satisfying night’s rest, free of street-level disturbances.
“Excessive vehicle noise is having a deleterious effect on our community.” Council Member Erik Bottcher