Car Alarms

When I was recovering from coronary bypass surgery, I could hear the sound of car alarms in my hospital bed. Hospitals are designed to be quiet. Hospital windows can shut out all but the loudest and most persistent of noises — car alarms. Hospital patients shouldn't have to hear such sounds. A quality of life offense as serious as car alarms ought to be of concern to legislators — and to the press.

Why haven't car alarms been outlawed? Why have they never been an issue in a political campaign? Somehow no one has noticed that the most offensive of all quality-of-life offenses, car alarms, have been granted a safe haven in this war. The law does not merely protect car alarms, it mandates them.

John Tierney, writing in the February 19, 1991, issue of the New York Times ("Laws Encourage Car Alarms But Din May Not Be Worth It"), tells us that a decade earlier, presumably in 1981, an amendment was added to section 167-d(12) of the New York State Insurance Law requiring insurance companies to "give discounts for cars equipped with anti-theft devices."

Heaven only knows why car alarms were defined as anti-theft devices. No one can take them seriously. Sirens in cars go off so frequently that no one pays attention. These devices make a lot of unpleasant noise, but auto theft has not been reduced. When car alarms were first introduced in 1970, auto theft doubled, as did all crime. Now that crime is dropping nationwide, auto theft is going down as well.

Car alarms are not standard equipment. Nowadays, a vehicle can be equipped with an immobilization device, a computer chip in the key. That makes more sense than an alarm which annoys but doesn't attract attention. An alarm for use after a theft, which could be activated by remote control but couldn't be turned off from within the car, might be a good way to prevent theft. So might an instrument that kept track of an automobile's location. Such devices would be expensive and have drawbacks, but they could possibly reduce crime. More complicated devices than those have been developed. What we have instead is simply an invention that makes ugly sounds at any hour of the day or night. Legislators have responded; they have passed legislation limiting the time they are permitted to sound. Such legislation is inherently unenforceable. The same alarm may go off again and again. They should simply be outlawed. Their manufacture, sale and possession should be illegal.

One weekend morning, an alarm went off under my window at 8:30 A.M. An hour later, it was still going off and then going back on. I called the local precinct. They sent a police car and ticketed the offending vehicle. At 12:32 P.M., it was still going off periodically. I called them again. They said they were aware of the problem and were working on it. I appreciate the efforts of the police, but the laws are too weak.

Every time I mention this to anyone, I get the same response: "Ha ha. You're very clever. That would be a wonderful idea. But it's so unrealistic. You can't outlaw car alarms." No one ever explains why they can't be banned; the public considers it self-evident. I have no understanding of why no one can seriously consider outlawing car alarms.

Noise is bad for one's mental and physical health. "Experts say 20 million Americans face hearing loss from excessive noise," according to an article in the March 6, 1990, issue of the New York Times. The article reports that noise makes people angry and violent. A physician, Dr. David Glass, is cited as saying, "Among the sounds that are particularly noticeable are ambulance sirens and automobile burglar alarms." Ambulance sirens, as it happens, serve a purpose; car alarms do not - unless the purpose is to enrich the companies that make them. I wonder how much these companies have contributed to the campaign funds of legislators.

America is a wonderful country. Its residents are creative, bright, tolerant and law abiding; its cultural, intellectual and financial strengths are justly famous throughout the world. The United States is the wealthiest country in the world, but it cannot claim to be civilized if its air is shattered by car alarms all day and all night.

The problem is not restricted to America. When I visited Poland in 1998, I heard the screams of car alarms piercing the beautiful medieval streets of Cracow. Even in China, where citizens are actively discouraged from expressing their opinions, there have been "an increasing number of complaints from sleep-deprived Beijing residents," according to a news story in the February 27, 1997, issue of China Daily ("New regulation to curb excessive car-alarm noise"). Chinese officials, alas, have reacted with a weak and irrelevant response, just as American politicians have: they drafted regulations "to order drivers using car alarms to set their devices at a lower sensitivity level."

Why haven't politicians noticed that car alarms continue to lower the quality of life? I just don't understand.