Disturbing the Peace
Air Date: Week of September 27, 1996
Car alarms daily rouse hundreds of sleep-deprived New Yorkers from their needed rest. Some egg-toting vigilantes are giving car owners a piece of their yolk, while others are working to have car alarms banned altogether. Neal Rauch reports from New York City on this sticky controversy.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Modern life is full of nasty noises, especially in the cities. Sirens can shatter serenity at any moment and jackhammers, loud music, and useless mufflers can all send us over the edge. For many people in New York City, there's one form of sonic pollution at the top of the list. They're calling for its banning, even though some nervous New Yorkers savor the sound for security reasons. And as Neal Rauch reports, even as the controversy prompts loud debate, some aren't waiting for laws to be passed.
(Crickets in silence)
RAUCH (whispering): It's late. You're tired. Finally, after an exhausting day, you're ready to surrender to the world of dreams. (Dreamy music) Your head sinks into your pillow. Then...
EVANS: After being awakened at night many times so that awful feeling, you know, you've just gotten to sleep and then the alarm goes off.
(Car alarm continues)
RAUCH: Each night hundreds of people like Judy Evans, a scenic designer and artist who lives in Brooklyn, are jolted out of their sleep by the nagging wail of a car alarm.
EVANS: You just wait it out but you don't know if that's going to happen again. You don't know when you're going to be reawakened for a second or third time even.
RAUCH: Often she is, and sometimes a defective alarm will go on for hours.
EVANS: If one person were standing on the corner with a horn making that kind of noise they would be arrested. They would be disturbing the peace.
MAN: It slowly gets under your skin and eventually drives you nuts (laughs).
RAUCH: A music producer and composer, this resident of Manhattan's Upper West Side got fed up with car alarms disturbing his sleep and his work. He got together with some similarly frazzled neighbors and formed a posse of sorts.
MAN: We start off with a note saying fix your car alarm, it's disturbed hundreds of people last night. If that doesn't help we quite often use some minor retaliatory step like breaking an egg on their windshield or on the front hood, which doesn't hurt anything but it's a little bit of a mess to clean up.
RAUCH: The "egg man," who prefers to remain anonymous, says some vigilantes take even more drastic action. Like smearing axle grease on door handles.
MAN: Another classic is to smear vaseline all over the windshield, which is incredibly hard to get off. (Laughs) So -- I think in other neighborhoods there might be even broken windshields and things like that.
RAUCH: Lucille DiMaggio was a target of vigilante retribution. It happened one night when, unbeknownst to her, the car alarm malfunctioned.
DIMAGGIO: I noticed something on the passenger front door. There were a lot of dent marks. It appeared to me that it looked like the heel of someone's shoe, as if someone had kicked my innocent car because the alarm hadn't even been going off all night.
RAUCH: The repairs cost her a couple of hundred dollars.
(Car alarm goes off)
RAUCH: To test the theory, Lucille Dimaggio set off her alarm for me in a restaurant parking lot. Not a single person bothered to see if a car was being broken into. Which begs the question: are car alarms really effective? Judy Evans says absolutely not, not even when she's called the police.
EVANS: One night, there was a real incredible racket, and a little MG was being mutilated to death. The alarm was going off. So I called 911. Well about 40 minutes later, the police drove up.
RAUCH: Little remained of the car by then. Ms. Evans, who's taken to sleeping with earplugs and the windows closed, says car alarms should be banned in densely populated and already noisy neighborhoods.
(Noise: motors, car horns honking)
ABATE: The streets are much noisier than they were 20 years ago. Even 10 years ago.
RAUCH: New York State Senator Catherine Abate represents Manhattan.
ABATE: The noise affects not only their ability to sleep at night, but for most part their ability to work during the day. And even parents have come to me and said what is the impact on children? And there are more and more studies that show that young people in particular, that are exposed to a sustained amount of loud noise, have hearing loss. So it's a health issue, it's a quality of life issue.
RAUCH: Senator Abate has worked on bills dealing with noise pollution but doesn't favor banning car alarms outright. Despite the anecdotal evidence, she says they do prevent some thefts. And, she adds, there are already stringent penalties imposed for those with wayward alarms.
ABATE: The first infraction is $210. It's $315 for the second offense. When someone buys a car alarm, should their discounts on their insurance policies be reduced? Should people receive points on their licenses so their insurance premiums would go up? I'm not sure that alone will create a difference. I want to look at education and compliance, because I think that's really where the remedy will lie in the future.
RAUCH: Enforcement of existing laws, along with new regulations, may be cutting down noise in some neighborhoods. It's now illegal for alarms to run for more than 3 minutes. After that police can break into a car to disable the alarm, or even tow away a wailing vehicle. It's hoped these actions will motivate car owners to adjust their alarms, making them less sensitive so vibrations from passing trucks and the like don't set them off.
(Music from the "egg man")
RAUCH: Even the egg man admits the car alarm situation has improved, at least in his neighborhood. By the way, the egg man has a sidekick: his wife.
MAN: When something happens outside she'll say, "Do you think that's eggworthy?" And I say, "That sounds like an egg candidate to me."
RAUCH: For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.
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