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Town Rumbling Over Car Stereos Newport Police Chief Wants To Ban The Boom

By John Craig Staff writer

NEWPORT, Wash. -- Newport Police Chief Bill Clark wants to lower the boom on car stereos that can rattle windows two blocks away. He's proposing an ordinance against bass-blasting mobile sound systems that he says have proliferated from two to a half-dozen local cars since he came to town last September. "It's just been overwhelming support I've got so far for the ordinance,'' Clark said. "People are just sick and tired of the vibration.''

Chiropractic clinic worker Judy Gentle said she supports a boom ban for a variety of reasons, including the pure irritation of being forced to listen to the "boom, boom, boom'' of someone else's music. "For one thing, it scares you,'' she said. "You think something's wrong with your car.'' Passing vehicles also can make it difficult to converse with clients in the office, she said. The rumble is such an invasion of personal space that "it's almost like it's inside you,'' Gentle said. Besides, she said, many small towns in the region don't even allow economically important log trucks to use noisy compression braking. "We don't let loggers use jake brakes, so why do we let young people boom us out?''

Clark got his fill in Pasco, where he lived across the street from a park. There, youths regularly serenaded the entire neighborhood with giant speakers mounted in the trunks of their cars. "The kids would go down and lie on the grass and open up the trunks and crank those things up,'' Clark said, grimacing as though the sound were still reverberating. "I don't care what they listen to. Just don't force everybody else to listen to it - or to feel the thump of it.''

Getting away from the din was one of the great things about coming to Newport, Clark said. But, even though he lives 100 to 200 feet from U.S. Highway 2, he said he can easily hear steroid stereos coming. At least a couple of other city officials, City Administrator Delphine Palmer and Councilwoman Patti Remick, said they haven't received any complaints. "I don't feel like it's much of a problem,'' Palmer said. "I could see it if they were sitting outside somebody's house with their boom boxes, but when they're just driving through Newport on Highway 2 and being kids, I don't have a problem with that.''

She said she would prefer to rely on the city's existing noise-nuisance ordinance. But she said City Attorney Tom Metzger has been asked to present a draft ordinance for a yet-unscheduled public hearing. Metzger said he's studying a Tacoma ordinance that was upheld by an appellate court in March 1998. That ordinance prohibits car stereos from being played so loud they can be heard farther than 50 feet. Davenport passed just such an ordinance last May, and Kettle Falls has a new noise ordinance that regulates stereos on the basis of decibel levels.

Other cities in northeastern Washington have residential-area noise ordinances that require some interpretation. For example, Colville prohibits noise that "unreasonably'' annoys or disturbs people, and Pullman bans noise that "annoys, disturbs or perturbs any reasonable person of normal sensitivities.'' In Spokane, Senior Assistant City Attorney Larry Winner is working on a new car-stereo noise ordinance at the request of the Police Department. Winner said the problem with Spokane's law is that it "doesn't have any objective criteria or standards.''

Teens' Fascination With Big Bass is Booming

Some Pay Thousands Just to Have the Biggest Thump on the Block

By John Craig Staff writer

Window-rattling car stereos are today's version of the muscle cars teenagers used to rely on to get attention. "It's a way for kids to separate themselves, just in a different medium,'' said Crawford Stephens, the high priest of the north Spokane Magnolia Hi-Fi store's "Temple of Boom'' showroom. "He with the most bass wins.'' He hopes critics will remember that they were teenagers at one time, too. "Remember how mad grandpa used to get about the glasspack mufflers on that '68 Camaro you used to drive?'' Stephens asked. "It's a different generation.''

The youthful-looking mobile stereo sales manager said he encourages his customers to moderate their volume and tries to educate them about the subtleties of sound reproduction. At one-quarter power or less, the Temple of Boom's twin 300-watt amplifiers - connected to eight 12-inch subwoofers and an array of smaller speakers - can deliver stunningly rich and subtle sound. At full power, the system can deliver an ear-shattering 150 decibels that can literally rattle a person's vocal cords.

That's what it took to win the store's "Pump Up the Thump'' contest in March, as measured by a special microphone in the driver's seat. Stephens said contestants, about 80 percent of them young men, wrapped around the building to show their stuff - none of which could match the world record of 170 decibels. Even high-powered rifles generally fall short of that record. Inside the Temple of Boom, demonstrations have to be limited to a few seconds because the rattle outside the soundproof room is so loud cellular telephone salesmen can't talk to their customers. Besides, the 32-year-old Stephens said, "I have little kids I need to go home to and hear when they say, 'Daddy, I need something.''

Despite the risk to their hearing, though, some customers like to bathe in the turbulent din. "A lot of the kids like to feel it go right through their body,'' Stephens said. "That's part of the thrill, just feeling it thump their chest.'' Some, he said, take his advice to wear earplugs - so they can crank the volume up loud enough to rattle windows and passers-by. "A lot of the guys come in and say, 'I want to be able to shake windows two blocks away,''' Stephens said. For that, they'll need at least a couple of 12-inch subwoofers and a 300-watt amplifier, and can expect to shell out at least $1,000, Stephens said.

It's not uncommon, though, to hitch more than 1,000 watts of power to a half-dozen big speakers stuffed in a trunk at a cost of $2,000 to $3,000 - often more than the car is worth. Those who want to get into the "fine art of tweaking'' may add an efficiency-improving frequency equalizer, starting at $250. And those with money to burn might buy a vehicle to go with their stereo systems, based on the vehicle's acoustic qualities. There's also a lot of showmanship in this youthful mating dance. Compact disc players come with display panels that rotate into view and flash like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Sometimes amplifiers and other hidden equipment are installed in motorized racks so they can be trundled out to impress friends and rivals.

But booming bass is still the bottom line, and young people are paying a high price for it in hearing loss, according to Kathy Peck, executive director of Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers (HEAR). Peck co-founded the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization after damaging her hearing as a bass player in a punk rock band. With sustained exposure to car stereo levels that are often well in excess of 100 decibels, she said, even earplugs won't prevent hearing loss. "Just through bone conduction, you're going to get some damage.''

State and federal occupational safety laws don't regulate car stereos or other sources of sound that people voluntarily inflict on themselves. But Washington law requires hearing protection for workers who are exposed to 115 or more decibels, no matter how briefly. Ear muffs also are required for two hours of sustained exposure to 95 decibels. Small increases in decibel numbers indicate much larger increases in volume. For example, a 20-decibel sound is 10 times louder than a 10-decibel sound, 30 decibels is 100 times louder, and 40 decibels is 1,000 times louder.

Stephens held out hope for those who are aggrieved by booming car stereos. The young people who play them may soon be ready for what he said is the fastest-growing segment of the mobile sound market: airliner-like consoles for minivans and sport utility vehicles that allow children to watch movies in the back seat while their parents listen to music - all on wireless earphones.

For more information about hearing loss caused by loud music, point your Web browser to: www.hearnet.com.

John Craig can be reached at (509) 459-5429 or by e-mail at johnc@spokesman.com.

Copyright (c) 1999, The Spokesman-Review Spokane, Wash. Sunday, April 25, 1999


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