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Car Alarms Are Useless, So Ban Them

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Car Alarms Are Useless, So Ban Them

January 10, 2002
Urban PolicyNYC

New Yorkers hate car alarms. Bronx Campaign for Peace and Quiet founder John Dallas ranks car alarms as one of the biggest causes of noise complaints. More than 80% of the calls to New York's quality-of-life hotline concern noise, and many are car-alarm complaints, police say.

But then, car-alarm makers have designed these infernal devices to aggravate. First, they're loud. Top models like Viper and Hellfire boast sirens that hit a painful 125 decibels — as loud as a disco, and it's sounding right outside your window. Equally annoying, the alarms often come with electronic sensors so skittish that a passing motorcycle can get them screaming. On some estimates, 95% of car alarms that go off are false alarms.

The time has come for New York to outlaw these infernal noisemakers.

With so many vehicles equipped with car alarms — one in four households now owns one, costing anywhere from $100 to $1,000 and purchased with the car or in the $500 million aftermarket — a neighborhood can suffer several blaring over the course of a bad night, even if there's no thief in sight.

The alarms purport to deter auto crime. But 20 years after they became ubiquitous on city streets, it's incontrovertible: Car alarms don't work. The reasons they don't work are straightforward. First, a professional car thief can make short work of one — and these days the pros are responsible for 80% of the $7 billion-plus car-theft racket.

Second, the alarms have become so commonplace and false alarms so ubiquitous that nobody thinks "crime" when one goes off. A recent survey found that fewer than 1% of respondents would call the police on hearing a car alarm.

Industry lobbyists retort that 95% of those who've bought alarms are happy with them and that people feel more secure owning them. But so what? Lots of things people buy or do might make them individually happy or reassure them but come with social costs that may or may not be worth putting up with.

Making the alarms even harder to justify is the existence of vehicle security systems that do work — noiselessly. Manufacturer-installed immobilizers — they shut off your car's ignition system when someone without a key with the right computer chip embedded in it tries to start the car — have shrunk insurance losses for vehicles rigged with them by 50%.

So if car alarms don't work and drive folks crazy, what can we do about them? Many cities, including New York, have tried to crack down on them by fining owners of alarms that don't shut off after a few minutes. But enforcement, though it varies from precinct to precinct, remains lax.

Even if enforcement were draconian, however, the time-limit approach doesn't go far enough. A disgruntled Staten Islander explains why: "Limiting the amount of time that these alarms may go off has done little good. The same alarm can go off time and again." All it takes is a few seconds of one of these things blaring, and you're awake.

New York should be the first city to ban car alarms. You can have one if you want, but if yours goes off, you are subject to a fine. The industry would lobby to derail a ban, of course, just as it worked successfully to quash a City Council bill in 1997 that would have outlawed the aftermarket sale of alarms in the city.

But a firm mayoral push might be sufficient to get the City Council to pass a ban. Moreover, a ban might head off a new, motion-activated bike alarm, called Cycurity, that will be coming to market any day now with the potential to swell the urban din exponentially.