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Lower the boom

If you called the police and complained that a stranger was pounding on your walls and windows with a stick, disrupting the kids' study and Grandma's rest, they'd come and deal with the trespasser. But if you called and said someone was pounding on your house with invisible sound waves, with the same disruptive results, would they come? Probably not, but what's the difference?

The culprits are so-called "boom cars," those banshees from hell piloted by people bent on proving they have the right stuff _ or enough money to buy the right stuff _ to break any barrier to sound. Cities around the country are beginning to recognize the need to deal with this technology that permits remote-controlled violation of the sanctity of the home. It's long overdue.

As noted in a recent St. Petersburg Times report, boom cars vary widely in irritation potential, from the relatively tolerable to the thundering speakers-on-wheels variety so crammed with amplifying gizmos that they only marginally rate being classified as transportation.

Ever wonder what it sounds like to stand two feet away from a space shuttle launch? Just come within a mile of one of these things. In South Miami their proud owners call them "Nagasakis" _ as in atomic explosion.

Trouble is, some people are content to lump all boom cars together and dismiss the lot as another innocent youth fad, albeit an expensive one. Such people are probably lucky enough to live in neighborhoods where only an occasional hard-core sonic boomer drifts through, emitting enough pounding, tooth-rattling wattage to power a small radio station.

But ask those unlucky enough to live in the neighborhoods where these characters love to cruise slowly in aimless circles at unrelenting full blast, parking occasionally, any time of day or night. Sometimes the mating call attracts others of the species, and lucky residents enjoy the dubious treat of dueling boom cars.

Usually these are poorer neighborhoods, already plagued by drugs and despair, where the boom babies feel that people are too intimidated to complain and/or officials are too indifferent to respond.

What really galls the long-suffering public is that the purveyors of this useless stuff even hold conventions and national competitions to tout the latest sound-boosting toys. What do they care if the young people who buy them risk permanently damaging their own hearing? What does it matter that one of the main reasons for buying such junk is to be able to shoot society the sound equivalent of a bird? So what if they're preying on people so lacking in self-esteem that they'll spend up to $50,000 or more just to get noticed? Peddling this trash is legal, unfortunately, but it's a pretty cynical way to make money.

You don't have to be uncool _ or unchilled or unrefrigerated or whatever the operative jargon is these days _ to despise boom cars. Nor should you be lumped automatically with those who harbor unrealistic expectations for quiet. Tolerating early-morning garbage trucks, for example, or construction or an occasional downtown concert, seems a legitimate price to pay for choosing to live in a city. No, all you have to be is civilized enough to recognize utter contempt for others' rights when you see it.

Make no mistake about it, some of these proud owners of Rockford Fosgates, Punch 150's and Alpines enjoy the perverse sense of power afforded by their toys, sometimes coupled with "music" that's designed to be as offensive as possible. And they're aided by a climate of fear that makes people hesitant to demand simple courtesy from a stranger for fear of being blown away.

But they're courting disaster. How can 250-million people with widely differing tastes be expected to share the same space peacefully without curbs on invasive behavior like boom cars and ridiculously loud stereos? As if the stresses of modern living weren't already enough, psychologists have long acknowledged the irritating qualities of incessant, unwelcome sound. If you don't believe it, watch people's reaction while raking your nails over a chalkboard. Two years ago a Tampa man was sentenced to 10 years in prison after shooting his neighbor, a college student, over a loud stereo.

Responsible leaders understand that you don't wait for more of that to happen. No community is obliged to honor a fad that's crossed the line and become a real public nuisance. Some, like Clearwater Beach, started cracking down on boom cars years ago. An attempt at a statewide bill died in the Senate two years ago _ due to lack of interest, according to its sponsor, Sen. Larry Plummer, D-South Miami. But the state of California has made it illegal to play any car sound system audible from 50 feet away, and Belleair Beach and Belleair Bluffs are considering similar ordinances.

That sounds like a sensible model for places like St. Petersburg that haven't tackled the problem separately and are relying on antiquated general noise ordinances based on muddy technicalities about "decibels" and such. Nonsense. If "I know it when I see it" suffices for obscenity, then it'll make life tough for the sonic boomers too.

The sad reality is that it's now possible for any high school dropout to save enough burger-flipping wages to purchase the means to trash an entire neighborhood, from the safety of a parked, pile-of-junk vehicle. It's enough to make decent citizens long for the good old days when punks sported switchblades and chains _ at least those were quieter.

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