Ban Car Alarms Home
Summary of Findings
The Cost of Car Alarms
Audible Car Alarms Don't Work
Auto Theft - Prevention Devices That Do Work
Car Alarms and the Law
Appendix A: Car Alarm Noise Cost Model
Appendix B: Legal Authority of New York City to Ban Audible Car Alarms
Download the full report in PDF format
The Cost of Car Alarms
Car alarms impose significant costs on New York City residents. Car alarm noise is a form of pollution known as a "negative externality": the unexpected and unaccounted-for cost of an economic activity. When a New Yorker buys and installs a car alarm, the $200 to $1,000 he or she spends does not account for the health, productivity, property value, and quality of life costs the alarm will impose on the owner's neighbors. According to T.A.'s Car Alarm Noise Cost Model, these costs amount to a "noise tax" of $100 to $120 per year for the average New York City resident. The total annual cost of car alarms to all New York City residents is $400 to $500 million (see Appendix A for details).
New Yorkers unequivocally despise car alarms. In studying the issue, T.A. surveyed over 800 New York City residents. Of these, about 90% say that car alarm noise diminishes their quality of life (fig. 1). Three out of four say car alarms interfere with their ability to sleep (fig. 2) and just over half say the sudden and unexpected noise of alarms diminishes their ability to work productively. These figures correspond with data gathered from the NYPD's Quality of Life Hotline. In 2001, noise complaints comprised 83% of the 97,000 calls received, with car alarms consistently near the top of the list.2
Talented individuals and working families are leaving New York City
because of traffic noise and car alarms. In a 2001 Census survey of
53,600 American households, more people reported that they are bothered
by traffic noise (including car alarms) than by any other factor,
including crime and the condition of local schools.3 More people also
rated traffic noise as "so bothersome they want to move"
(fig.3). A recent survey by the League for the Hard of Hearing went
further, and found that car alarms in particular were the third most
irritating source of noise in our environment, bothering 83% of
Urban traffic noise - particularly the sudden, unexpected and extremely variable noise produced by car alarms - is a significant contributing cause to a number of serious and expensive health problems. Loud noise causes a fight-or-flight response, even when there is no real danger. Capillaries in the extremities constrict and blood surges to the brain, the liver secretes glucose for energy, and the adrenal gland pumps hormones into the bloodstream, boosting stress levels. Not surprisingly, numerous public health studies have shown clear links between noise and cardiovascular problems such as hypertension, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Men appear to be particularly susceptible.5
Car alarm noise isn't only bad for the heart. Studies also show correlations between chronic noise and gastrointestinal illnesses, psychological problems and unhealthy fetal development. To sum up 30 years worth of medical literature most succinctly: Noise makes people stressed out. And stress contributes to nearly every human illness.6
Obviously, a certain level of background noise is always going to be the cost of living in a great metropolis. But car alarms are especially harmful for two reasons. First, their variable noise can't be "tuned out" as easily as steady sounds.7 Second, many new car alarms exceed 125 decibels (dBA). This is louder than the sound of a jet airplane taking off 200 feet away, and over twice the volume of a loud dance club. It's no wonder that car alarm manufacturers give their products pseudo-military names like Cobra, Hellfire, Hornet, and Viper - these products can actually damage your hearing and your health. In the dense, urban environment of New York City, car alarms exact a serious public health cost.
Schoolchildren are especially affected by traffic noise. A 2001 study by Cornell University environmental psychologist Gary Evans finds that even low-level, everyday traffic noise increases blood pressure, heart rates and stress hormones among fourth-graders. "Noise can have serious health, learning and task-motivation effects in children and adults," Evans says. He found that children who are "exposed to traffic noise become less motivated, presumably from the sense of helplessness that can develop from noise they couldn't control."8
Evans's findings support the famous results of a 1975 study conducted by New York City noise expert Professor Arline Bronzaft. She found that children in classrooms facing noisy, elevated subway tracks read as much as one grade-level below their counterparts in quiet classrooms.9 Another study examined a Washington Heights apartment building overlooking the George Washington Bridge and measured the noise exposure in different apartments. Carefully controlling for differences in social class and air quality, the authors found that children living on lower, noisier floors did not read as well as those on the quieter, upper floors. Apparently, traffic noise had made the children inattentive to acoustical cues, hindering their ability to pay attention in class.10 In a city struggling to improve its education system, the chronic noise of car alarms is a handicap New York's children do not need.
Alarms make New York less civil, eroding the sense of neighborliness and mutual respect necessary to live in America's most densely-populated city. In a series of psychological studies in the 1970s, researchers "accidentally" dropped books on the sidewalk and measured how often passersby offered to help pick them up. In normal conditions, 80% of the pedestrians offered help. With an 87 dBA lawnmower blaring nearby (about half the volume of an average car alarm), only 15% of passersby offered their assistance (fig. 4).11
Another study found that more people socialized with their neighbors on quiet streets than on noisy ones.12 Unlike the unavoidable roar of airplanes or the beeps of reversing trucks, alarms are not just a source of noise, but an insult to communal values.13 "People who place such alarms in their vehicles show the ultimate in selfishness: a willingness to invade the space of their fellow citizens with a raucous noise that says, 'I care about my car and couldn't care less about your ears,'" argues anti-noise activist Dave Pickell in the City Journal.14 An alarm imposes upon everyone, without respecting the neighbors' need to sleep, talk, work, read, and think.
Car alarms assault public space and foster an atmosphere of incivility and anxiety. The NYPD believes that car alarms create an atmosphere conducive to crime. Like broken windows and graffiti, blaring alarms are one of the "signs that no one cares, and invite both further disorder and serious crime," according to Police Strategy No. 5: Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York.15 In a post-9/11 city facing a huge fiscal crisis and genuine security threats, we just can't afford to allow this technology on our streets anymore. In the final analysis, the true cost of car alarm noise to the citizens of New York City is immeasurable.
5 For an overview of recent studies, see Elise E. M. M. van Kempen, Hanneke Kruize, Hendriek C. Boshuizen, Caroline B. Ameling, Brigit A. M. Staatsen, and Augustinus E.M. de Hollander, "The Association between Noise Exposure and Blood Pressure and Ischemic Heart Disease: A Meta analysis," Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 110, No. 3, March 2002. For a broad study of the health impact of noise, see B. Berglund, T. Lindvall, and D. Schwela, Guidelines for Community Noise, World Health Organization, Geneva, 1995
6 For an example, see W. Babisch, H. Fromme, A. Beyer, and H. Ising, "Increased catecholamine levels in urine in subjects exposed to road traffic noise: the role of stress hormones in noise research," Environment International, Vol. 26, No. 7-8, June 2001, pp. 475-81. For a journalistic treatment of recent research on stress hormones, see Erica Goode, "The Heavy Cost of Chronic Stress," New York Times, Dec. 17, 2002, pp. F1
7 See explanation of "Robinson's Formula" in Appendix A.
13 That is to say, unavoidable for the pilots or truck drivers themselves. Residents of neighborhoods with high airplane or truck noise might feel insulted by the policies of the FAA or NHTSA, but not by their own neighbors.
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