"A burglar alarm combines in its person all that is objectionable about a fire, a riot, and a harem, and at the same time has none of the compensating advantages." So wrote Mark Twain in 1882.
More than a century later, alarms have grown louder and migrated to cars parked in every New York neighborhood, and no one is any fonder of them. Councilmember Eva Moskowitz (D-Manhattan) says "the most frequent noise complaint" from her constituents is about car alarms. Now she and Councilmember John Liu (D-Queens) are each sponsoring a bill that promises to solve New York's car alarm problem.
Liu's bill, introduced in 2002 with nine co-sponsors, would ban the sale and installation of audible car alarms in New York City. Moskowitz's bill, introduced in April with fifteen co-sponsors, would go further, banning the sale, installation, and use of the alarms. Moskowitz also proposes a mechanism for citizens to report annoying alarms to the police, prompting a warning letter to the car owner.
It is clear that these bills have the full support of New Yorkers. In a survey conducted earlier this year by Transportation Alternatives (whose results are published as part of a report I co-wrote, Alarmingly Useless: The Case For Banning Car Alarms In New York City ), three-quarters of the 800 New Yorkers who responded said that car alarms interfered with their sleep; 90 percent said that alarms diminished their quality of life. Many spoke passionately: "This is one of the annoyances that rises to the attention even of life-long New Yorkers like me," one said, typically. "I don't hear fire engines, but I do, painfully, hear these car alarms -- while I'm sleeping, when I'm trying to read or think or just live. They're all useless, loud, and extremely disruptive."
And useless they are. The only unbiased study ever done on the subject -- one conducted by the insurance industry -- shows that car alarms do nothing to stop car theft.
But when a version of Liu's bill was introduced in the City Council in 1997, lobbyists for the car alarm manufacturers derailed it.
Not surprisingly, these manufacturers are once again trying to convince the City Council not to ban their product. At a recent council hearing on car alarms, Directed Electronics spokesman K. C. Bean said, "The proof that our systems work is exhibited in the fact that since 1993, annualized vehicle theft in New York City has fallen by 76 percent." Of course, crime is down across the board; during the same period, New York City's murder rate dropped by 70 percent, and robberies by 68 percent. Car theft rates would probably have dropped dramatically too, with or without alarms. But this statistic was the only "proof" any of the manufacturers were able to cite.
At that same hearing, the New York Police Department also decided to oppose the car alarm ban. Its reasoning was hardly better than Bean's. Assistant Commissioner Susan Petito said New York should permit car alarms because "we can't know for sure whether audible alarms deter car thefts." Apparently, the NYPD has never seen the insurance data. When pressed, Petito admitted that the department has no evidence that alarms work, keeps no statistics on the arrests (if any) that car alarms have led to, and knows that police officers themselves usually ignore the alarms.
In fact, the department put out a booklet in 1994, "Police Strategy No. 5," of which the assistant commissioner seemed to be unaware. The police pamphlet called car alarms an "annoying and sometimes unbearable disturbance for residents in their homes." They "frequently go off for no apparent reason." And as one of the "signs that no one cares," they "invite both further disorder and serious crime."
The truth is, there is no reason to allow car alarms to continue in New York City -- and many reasons to ban them.
CAR ALARMS ARE HARMFUL TO OUR HEALTH
A recent Cornell University study finds that traffic noise raises blood pressure, increases stress hormones, and leads to "learned helplessness" in schoolchildren. Many traffic sounds contribute to the problem, but car alarms, unpredictable and often exceeding 125 decibels, can be especially harmful. The World Health Organization warns that even for those who think they can "tune out" or ignore the noise, physical tests show otherwise. "There [are] increased levels of stress hormone and elevation of resting blood pressure."
Children bombarded with car alarm noise suffer even more. A noisy environment makes sleep and concentration difficult, and can interfere with language acquisition. Noise analyst Arline Bronzaft's famous study in a Manhattan elementary school found that children in classrooms facing noisy, elevated subway tracks read as much as one grade-level below their counterparts in quiet classrooms. Another study by psychologist Sheldon Cohen examined an apartment building overlooking the George Washington Bridge, and found that children living on lower, noisy floors did not read as well as those on the quieter, upper floors. The experts believe that children exposed to loud traffic noise learn to ignore sound cues, which makes it harder for them to pay attention in class.
Car alarms also contribute to a break-down in civility among neighbors. In a series of psychological studies beginning 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 percent of the pedestrians offered help. With an 87 decibel lawnmower blaring nearby (about half the volume of an average car alarm), only 15 percent of passersby offered their assistance. Loud noise, as later research confirmed, makes people less attentive to the needs of their neighbors.
Perversely, then, alarms alienate the very neighbors that car owners depend upon to call the police when their alarms go off.
CAR ALARMS DON'T STOP THEFT
In 1997, the insurance industry's Highway Loss Data Institute looked at insurance claims data from 73 million vehicles, to see which devices could prevent theft. While new vehicle immobilizers cut theft rates in half, the study concludes that cars with alarms "show no overall reduction in theft losses" compared to cars without alarms. The alarms just don't work.
"An audible system is really just a noisemaker," explains General Motors spokesman Andrew Schreck, who notes that only eight percent of GM's light duty vehicles now have an alarm as standard equipment. "Most people, when they hear an alarm, they just walk the other way."
There are two main reasons that car alarms don't work. First, people know that the vast majority of blaring car alarms are false alarms, set off by passing trucks, electrical malfunctions, or nothing at all. So no one responds to them -- often, not even the car owners themselves. A recent survey by the Progressive Insurance Company found that fewer than one percent of respondents would call the cops upon hearing a car alarm. In 1992, Darrell Issa, the multimillionaire founder of car alarm manufacturer Directed Electronics (who now leads the recall drive against California Governor Gray Davis), told the New York City Council that an alarm is effective "only in areas where the sound causes the dispatch of the police or attracts the owner's attention." In New York City, this just doesn't happen.
Second, alarms are very easy to disable. About 80 percent of stolen cars are taken by professional car thieves, and they know how to deactivate an alarm in just a few seconds, according to police and criminologists. "No one has demonstrated that alarms are effective," says Rutgers criminology professor Michael Maxfield, now studying car theft for the state of New Jersey. "No one seriously recommends them as a serious protection against theft. They might help a small bit, but there's a good reason why actuarial data show no benefit [to having an alarm]."
How to get New York car owners to switch over to effective -- and quiet -- anti-theft devices like vehicle immobilizers, tracking systems, and silent pagers, which do not cost any more than noisy car alarms? The Council can pass a ban on the old, ineffective, and unbearably noisy ones. The two bills under consideration would, in fact, help everyone here: local installers, who will be hired to change cars over to silent security devices; car owners, who will benefit from better security and bigger insurance discounts; and the millions of New Yorkers who wish, once in a while, to get some sleep.
Aaron Friedman is founder of Silent Majority: Citizens Against Car Alarms, and is a consultant to Transportation Alternatives.