Winter 2003, p.2
Ban Car Alarms in NYC Now!
Of all the ways that automobiles impinge on the lives of New Yorkers, few are as infuriating and unnecessary as the audible car alarm. It is hard to find an issue that generates such a visceral and unanimous response: Car alarms make New York City a worse place to live. Now that the City has banned sidewalk cycling and cigarette smoking, it is time to go after Quality-of-Life Public Enemy Number One. It is time to ban car alarms.
In the nation's densest urban environment, where one over-sensitive alarm can destroy the sleep, work and recreation of thousands of people at one time, these devices exact a heavy toll. By even the most conservative standards, car alarms cost New Yorkers hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Studies show that exposure to the type of noise produced by alarms can diminish children's scholastic aptitude, decrease worker productivity and significantly degrade property values.
But most of all, car alarms assault public space and foster an atmosphere of incivility and anxiety. Like aggressive squeegee men, broken windows and graffiti, blaring alarms are one of the "signs that no one cares," according to NYPD Police Strategy No. 5. They "invite both further disorder and serious crime." Alarms erode the sense of neighborliness and mutual respect that is necessary to live shoulder-to-shoulder in a big city. It is "no surprise, given the aggressive nature of these devices, that 'car lynchings' of vehicles with disruptive alarms are frequent," says Brian Anderson in the City Journal. "Bleary-eyed citizens have slashed tires, smeared door handles with dog doo, or even smashed the windows of offending vehicles. Car alarms are civic poison."
Destroying Public Health and Space
New Yorkers unequivocally despise car alarms. Ninety-one percent of New Yorkers feel that car alarm noise diminishes their quality of life, according to a T.A. survey of nearly a thousand residents. Three-quarters said that car alarms interfere with sleep, and more than half responded that car alarms disrupt work and hinder productivity. Of the 97,000 calls that the NYPD's Quality of Life Hotline received in 2001, the overwhelming majority of complaints were about noise, with car alarms near the top of the list. Census data reveals that incessant traffic and car alarm noise are a top reason why families leave New York City.
Public health studies show
that traffic noise--particularly the sudden and variable noise of car
alarms--has the ability to increase blood pressure, heart rates and stress
hormones. A 2001 study by Cornell University psychologist Gary Evans showed
that everyday traffic "can have serious health, learning and
Outdated and Ineffective Technology
What are the benefits of car alarms? According to the manufacturers, installers, insurers, criminologists, police and the thieves themselves, the benefits are none, zero, nada. "No study has demonstrated that they reduce auto theft," says Lawrence Sherman, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Criminology Center. In 1997, the Highway Loss Data Institute surveyed insurance claims from 73 million vehicles and concluded that cars with alarms show no overall reduction in theft losses compared to cars without alarms. The big auto manufacturers concur. "An audible system is really just a noisemaker," says General Motors spokesperson Andrew Schreck, explaining why car alarms are being phased out as standard equipment.
There are two main reasons why alarms do not work. First, the vast majority of alarms are false. When the New York State Legislature researched the issue in 1992, it estimated that 95% of alarms were set off by the vibrations of passing trucks or by glitches in the car's electrical sensing system. Other experts estimate false alarms to be as high as 99%. In the city, alarm noise is so ubiquitous that many car owners do not even pay attention to their own alarms. "If you're in a store, and an alarm goes off in the parking lot outside, do you immediately think it's your car and come rushing out?" asks Brooklyn alarm dealer Norman Maryasis in a candid moment. "No."
T.A.'s car alarm survey found that fewer than 5% of New Yorkers have ever called the police or thought to take any action against a possible car theft upon hearing an alarm. Meanwhile, 60% of respondents said that they have called the police or taken action against the obnoxious noise created by an alarm. For New Yorkers, the majority of whom do not own cars, the alarms themselves are a much more pressing crime problem than the thieves they are meant to deter.
The second reason why car alarms are ineffective is because, in the past 20 years, car theft has evolved from a juvenile pastime into an $8.2 billion per year industry. "Defeating a car alarm is a non-issue," says New Jersey car theft authority Professor Michael Maxfield. "Thieves smash windows, yank wires and the alarm is deactivated. Eighty percent of all thieves can and do steal a car with an alarm.
New car theft technologies have made car alarms obsolete. Brake locks are inexpensive and effective. Personal car alarm pagers buzz a vehicle's owner when a car is disturbed rather than annoying the entire neighborhood. Lojack uses global positioning satellites to track vehicles and often leads cops to the thieves. And most effective is the passive immobilizer, which works by putting a coded computer chip inside the ignition key that communicates directly with the car's engine. Without the key, the only way to steal the car is to tow it away. When Ford added immobilizer systems to the Ford Mustang, theft rates dropped 77%.
In fact, car alarms provide only one real benefit. Many car owners receive a small discount on their insurance premiums for having an alarm. New York State law directs insurers to "appropriately modify the premium" for cars with devices that reduce "exposure to risk." With all of the insurance data showing that car alarms do not actually work, a few insurance companies have stopped providing a discount for audible alarms. It is time for the rest to follow suit.
City Council Take Action!
In 1992, the City Council took a crack at banning car alarms, but came up short. Instead, it passed a law that limits audible alarms to three minutes of blaring and bans the use of motion sensors, the technology responsible for most false alarms. Unfortunately, these laws are ineffective and mostly unenforced; it requires that a police officer be present to see that the alarm went off unprovoked, or to stand there and time it. Councilmember John Liu and others introduced a bill in 2000 to prohibit the sale and installation of audible car alarms in the five boroughs. The bill lost momentum as it traveled through the City Council's Environmental Protection Committee. Some councilmembers, it seems, are worried about the backlash from taking away the miniscule insurance discount that a few New York City car owners receive for having alarms.
It is time to stop losing sleep over this issue. Write to Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Environmental Protection Agency Chair James Gennaro and tell them that it is time to ban car alarms.
Council Speaker Gifford
Environmental Protection Committee
NYC Can Legally Ban Alarms
Zen Antidote to Car Alarms
Bells and whistles sound
T.A. Survey: New Yorkers routinely disturbed by car alarms
T.A. conducted an online survey that drew just under 1,000 responses. For the full survey, see www.transalt.org/press/askta/030228survey.html.
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