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Southern Brooklyn pol hopes ‘noise cameras’ will catch muffler modifiers

Legislation introduced by state Sen. Andrew Gounardes would increase fines for motorists with modified, noisy mufflers — and pilot a "noise camera" program across the city.
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State legislation aimed at cracking down on loud motorists would also establish a “noise camera” program across the five boroughs, according to the southern Brooklyn pol behind the bill, who hopes the scanners will help capture those violating volume ordinances.

The Stop Loud and Excessive Exhaust Pollution (SLEEP) legislation, introduced by state Sen. Andrew Gounardes, would increase the fine for modifying vehicle mufflers from $150 to $1,000, and also provide all police squad cars with decibel readers, along with the noise cameras.

“We think $1,000 is gonna hit people,” Gounardes told Brooklyn Paper. “If you’re gonna spend a couple hundred bucks souping up your car in the first place, illegally, you should have no problem paying the price for breaking the law. We’re not criminalizing anything new here.”

The legislation comes as many New Yorkers lose sleep as a result of large groups of people riding loud dirt bikes and drag racing well into the night. Noise complaints to 311 during the three months of lockdown at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, from March 20 to June 14, 2020, quadrupled from the same period the year prior, according to the bill.

Noise complaints to 311 have dropped significantly since the darkest days of the pandemic, but generally remain well above what they were prior.

Gounardes’ legislation would change New York’s noise ordinance enforcement criteria from the vague “excessive and unusual” level to more specific decibel metrics already codified in the state’s Vehicle and Traffic Law.

“Your definition of excessive could be totally different from what yours or mine would be,” Gounardes said. “When you have a subjective standard of law, it makes it almost impossible to enforce. We want to standardize the enforcement as much as possible. We want to get these obnoxious cars to stop terrorizing our neighborhoods.”

The text of Gounardes’ bill states that the noise cameras would allow for “unbiased yet thorough enforcement of legal noise limits,” modeled after the city’s automated speed camera program. Those cameras are located in 750 school zones around the city, and operate between 6 am and 10 pm, though Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for the state to allow them to operate 24/7. Speeders caught on the cameras are issued a $50 fine if captured within a quarter-mile of a school zone.

A city report released last year on the speed camera program showed substantial declines in speeding and accidents in areas where cameras were placed. On average, speeding violations in areas where cameras were placed dropped by 72.7 percent after four-and-a-half months. Crashes and injuries also declined over a one-year period, by 14 and 16.9 percent, respectively.

The legislation does not stipulate specific locations that the noise cameras would be placed. (Gounardes said that that would be worked out later on in discussions with the city, but that they would probably be located in “places with a high incidence of complaints of loud driving.”)

Noise cameras are in use elsewhere in the world, such as in Taiwan and in London. In London, offending drivers are first given a warning, and then are issued a £100 (USD $141.20) fine if they are caught again. The noise threshold in London is 74 decibels.

The cameras would be introduced to the city as part of a pilot program, Gounardes said. “We want to see how it’ll work. We’re not gonna roll it out on every block, but we see how it’s being rolled out in pilot programs around the world. We’ve had a tremendous number of complaints about these souped-up cars.”

“We want to see if this would be an adequate tool to use to address this huge quality-of-life problem,” he said.

Some observers, however, believe that the noise cameras are not the solution, and in fact could feasibly create even bigger problems.

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, is skeptical that the cameras would even be reliable, noting that the NYPD’s gunshot sensor ShotSpotter often misidentifies sounds and locations. But even if it does work as intended, he said, it could become a tool for surveilling marginalized communities and listening in on the conversations of pedestrians.

“Even if the technology does work, it’s still quite dangerous,” Cahn told Brooklyn Paper. “Any system capable of measuring how loud our cars are is also going to be capable of recording our conversations.”

Gounardes told Brooklyn Paper that the device’s sensors are only triggered if a certain decibel level is hit.

Cahn also worried that it could be used to surveil protesters, citing San Diego’s use of its “smart streetlights” to track and investigate demonstrators during last year’s protests against police brutality. “The answer to noise pollution simply can’t be a NYPD listening device on every corner.”

The SLEEP bill to increase fines has passed the Transportation Committees in both the Assembly and Senate, and is currently awaiting a full floor vote in both chambers. The noise camera pilot is still in committee.

This article has been updated to clarify that the bill to increase the fines on muffler modifiers has passed committee, while the noise camera pilot remains in committee.

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