Tom Bamberger
In Public

The Plague of Boom Cars

Cars with massive music amplifiers violate noise ordinances, but rarely get stopped by police.

By - Aug 26th, 2016 03:04 pm





I remember more than once getting a ticket for a blown-out muffler.  Disturbing the peace. According to the law if you can hear something 50 feet away from your property the police can issue a citation. How quaint.

That was back when cars were just a form of transportation. Today “boom cars,” as they’re called, pack ten thousand watt amplifiers ($16,000) and arrays of sub-woofers that set off cars alarms in my neighborhood. Sometimes the throbbing seems to shake the cars apart.

We are talking talking about young males, driving alone, playing Rap or Latino music. Their testosterone-fueled cruising rattles the windows in my studio and vibrates the glasses on my table. The sound levels peak inside my house at 90db according to the app on my iphone. That’s nearly six times louder than a normal conversation, or what the sound ordinance says is a violation even at your property line at night. You easily hear these contraptions more than a quarter mile away. A biologist from another planet would call this a mating display. Boom cars rip a flaming hole in the fabric of the night.


Making an impact is the point. “If you have been searching for that trunk thumping, window rattling, seat vibrating, heart-pounding bass, look no further,” Earthquake Sound says on their website. These audio systems are marketed to young men to attract women and impress their peers. A subculture dedicated to assaulting the very people we want to live in cities. Those who sleep at night, for example.

Tony Soprano used a much milder form of this torture — a boat playing Dean Martin at moderate volumes just off the shoreline of an attorney’s home — to convince him to return a $200,000 real estate deposit.

boom.1 2

You would think such a total disruption of the civic order demands a response. A boom car designed to be heard “a mile away” is one of the easiest violation in the world to detect. A little enforcement would go a long way. Setting a new social norm for sound would lower the blood pressure of the city. Our blood pressure, too.

Sound levels can reach 150db inside boom cars, which is the same as a jet taking off at 25 meters. An undeniable health hazard for the driver. We’d have to ask the neuroscientist if this any worse than driving after drinking a couple of beers. Not to mention the diminished awareness and cognitive capacity of other motorists and pedestrians. Sound penetrates. And blows your mind. You can’t hear yourself think.

The older whiter version of vehicle-produced noise pollution are Harleys and other motorcycles that have been estimated to exceed 100 or even 115 decibels and routinely violate noise ordinances in Milwaukee and cities across America.

So why don’t the police do anything about it? They have better things to do. That’s the official explanation, the department has to prioritize. That makes sense until you look at what police officers spend their time doing when they are not responding to shootings and the like. According to Municipal Court Records in 2015 they had time to issue 3,290 citations for disorderly conduct, 74 for littering on public property, 287 for a defective tail light, 12 for operating a bike without proper reflectors, 22 for an inadequate muffler, and 21 for defective or unnecessary use of a horn. And just 8 for “unnecessary vehicle noise”? That includes boom cars and roaring motorcycles, but also could be a bumper dragging on the street.

If the police have time to stop you for a broken tail light, they can stop you for broken ear drums as well.

Off the record, beat cops have told me they’re discouraged from giving citations to boom cars because, all things considered, the department doesn’t want to be seen shaking down people of color for playing music too loud.

Timothy Gauerke, public information officer for the police department, tells Urban Milwaukee via email that “traffic stops are often initiated upon cars playing excessively loud music. Citations may be issued on a case by case basis, based on officer discretion and other factors including the time of day, area of the city (residential versus commercial, industrial, etc.) and if a complainant wanted a citation issued.” As for excessively loud motorcycles, Gauerke says police often gives their operators warnings instead of tickets and considers the noise coming from them on a case-by-case basis.

Whatever the reason, there has been a notable downward trend in the number of citations annually for unnecessary vehicle noise:

2008  34
2009  50
2010  38
2012  32
2013  17
2014    4
2015    8
2016    2  (First five months of the year)

Even at its best, in 2009, the enforcement of noise was woefully inadequate. Meaning there is nothing stopping the city from getting even louder. Making our streets as much about self-expression as transportation. Boom cars are just the tip of the iceberg. You have boom motorcycles and now you have boom people walking down street. They set a precedent that encourages everyone else to turn up the volume. Now you can hear the music from restaurant patios and roof top patios blocks away. Night clubs open their doors and blast music to attract customers. And now there are Pedal Taverns whose business plan is based on loud music and screaming in the streets.

That’s probably less of a problem in some areas of the city (East Side, far South Side, etc.), but in my Walker’s Point neighborhood and other areas the noise can be overwhelming.

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg instituted a 311 call service, he found noise was the overwhelming quality-of-life issue in New York City. And he did something about it, giving police broader powers to issue citations for everything from booming cars to jackhammers to ice cream trucks.

That’s the only way real change can happen. This is not just a police enforcement matter. The mayor and Common Council would have to take on this issue and declare it important enough to adopt tougher policies to protect the victims of noise. They have to decide that city noise is not just a nuisance people have to put up with. People used to say pollution was just a nuisance, too, until we learned it was making people sick.

Categories: In Public

31 thoughts on “In Public: The Plague of Boom Cars”

  1. Colin Stuart says:

    Hugely loud and noisy speaker systems in cars just simply aren’t much of a thing anymore. Car manufactures have made it increasingly difficult to replace head units (non-DIN / proprietary) which leads to extensive modification being required… something that today’s average music listener just doesn’t care about enough to carry out (or have the money to do so).

    Local places to get these systems installed have also decreased it seems. The demand just isn’t there.

    More often than not I’m seeing people just blast music out of their phone, portable boombox, or wear earbuds while driving.

  2. Scott T says:

    This is nothing compared to after-market Harley pipes. When is something going to be done about that? It would be nice to open the windows on a cool summer night. I love Harleys, but the noise is ridiculously excessive. Loud pipes save lives? Whatever… more of an excuse for those needing attention. Listen to a MKE Police Department Harley, that’s the way they’re supposed to sound. Where is the “silent majority?”

  3. Kevin Baas says:

    I couldn’t agree more! Thank you for writing this very thorough article on a chronic problem in Milwaukee.

    You are a giving a very clear voice to my thoughts and feelings, and I can only imagine, countless more.

    But I feel my gratitude is redundant. You need not affirmation when you have data that is pretty damning. And I appreciate – as do countless others – your work in compiling this data and presenting it clearly with sound, reasoned arguments.

    Nonetheless, I’m going to go with my feelings here coupled with anticipation that you deserve it and will appreciate it, despite its redundancy:

    Thank you.

  4. Kevin Baas says:

    @Colin: let me entertain your premises – which strain credulity, to put it lightly:

    Okay, so they so all these things you say (they obviously don’t), and so now let’s look at that and see how effective it’s been at fixing the noise problems. Clearly not effective.

    So if what you say is true – which it isn’t – that would be more evidence that we need to use a different strategy – if at first you don’t succeed, try something different.

    Isn’t the most obvious different strategy better enforcement?

  5. Tony B. says:

    Harley Davidson motorcycles are 1000% worse but I guess that doesn’t count since this is Milwaukee.

  6. Joel says:

    More tickets aren’t the answer. The same way everyone speeds but doesn’t get tickets. Police really do have better things to do and with a city like ours I can see why police would not bother with such petty requests from citizens. I too hate those loud school buses drivers coming down my street but don’t think there going to ticket them either.

    As a former “boom car” owner my self what can I say more then coming full circle as they get older, pay back is a bitch..
    12 years after going to world finals competition in kanasa city for loudest car in my class. I’ve resivied tickets and I can tell you it’s only more of a badge of honor in the sub woofer community to get a ticket. Plus you think a $100 dollar ticket is going to stop a guy or gal that already has thousands of dollars invested into a set up from using it.. Colin is right too, I also think it is way less of a problem then it was coming out of the 90’s and early 00’s cause yes stuff just is more expensive now then it used to be because demand for that kind of music playing has shifted to little portable boom boxs that have no bass what so ever.

  7. Mats says:

    It is particularly awful in the intersection Humboldt Avenue and Water Street. How easy wouldn’t it be to have a squad car parked there and just rake in revenue for the city?

  8. Elizabeth Adleman says:

    Tougher policies on noise pollution. Well, if we’re going to go that far, you might as well include people screaming and yelling obscenities at each other. Give them all tickets. The hell with it, let’s give EVERYONE tickets. Because that solves everything right?

    I don’t, and will never, live in Milwaukee, but I’m there 7 days a week for my job. I have an hour drive to and an hour drive from work. Music is my therapy. I am among those who “blast” their music at obscenely loud volumes. I drive with my windows down when it’s not ridiculously humid out. I don’t listen to loud music to earn respect or street credit, I listen to it because it is something I enjoy. I turn my home stereo up loud too so that I can hear it 500 ft away in my garage. I have yet to receive complaints from neighbors that are 20 feet away from my windows. I get more complaints about my dog barking than music. HOWEVER, I will say that I respect noise ordinances at night and on Sundays.

    All that being said, I have to agree: the police have MUCH better things to do than sit around listening for people who drive with their music up. School started, there are truancy tickets to hand out. There are robberies, shootings, and a myriad of other crimes going on hourly. How often do you think those “testosterone fueled” men are actually paying those fines? And really? We’re going to ticket workers using jack hammers? Why not ticket all of the DPW because of all the loud tractors and street repair equipment? Ice cream trucks? Seriously? That’s a major reach. Instead of ticketing everyone and creating more strife and frustration than we already have, why don’t we find more constructive uses for the loud music? Like, provide music for festivals or events? That’s an excellent use of cars capable of creating music loud enough to be heard from several feet away. I’m sure there are other things we can find to nitpick and complain about other than loud cars.

  9. mbradleyc says:

    Bamberger, you found something we can totally agree on.

  10. Gary says:

    This is a new issue? You wait for the light to change and they usually go away.
    I admit that I used to crank the old WFMR radio station if subjected to open windowed boom-chicka-boom at a traffic light.

    There are a couple of old classical standbys that work well in cars or neighboring apartment decibel abusers like the opening of the Finale to Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 (The Organ). The orginal scoring of the Ride of the Valkyries, from “Die Valkyrie” with multiple sopranos. For the really bad ones, you turn on the music and then go do your laundry.

  11. Kevin Baas says:

    We should use noise detectors and cameras to ticket these chronic violators:

  12. Rich says:

    You wait for the light to change and they usually go away

    You wait for the light to turn red again and listen to the next car…Complaints like these are rarely rooted in any single occurrence.

  13. Kevin Baas says:

    Gary, the new issue is that the laws aren’t being enforced.

  14. A Bus Driver says:

    Waste of time. The loud players will be regretting it soon enough. Buy stock in hearing aide companies that is what I’ll be doing.

  15. AG says:

    Elizabeth Adleman demonstrates exactly why this happens and why enforcing tickets would work in decreasing the occurance of this issue. It’s people like her, who believe their music enjoyment trumps the desires of anyone she is around or drives by, that causes her to make the decision to blast her music. There’s a selfishness inherent in these people, some of which grow out of while others never seem to do, that can only be addressed through enforcement of the laws.

    Joel is right, for those who are extremely serious about their systems, the tickets won’t work. However, for the casual selfish person the fines racked up through tickets should hurt their pocketbook enough to at least roll up their windows or turn down the music when they see a cop near by. Same for those who are driving on suspended licenses, have a warrant, or who just can’t plain afford the ticket (but aren’t the type to be apathetic to tickets).

    The groups above should be enough to significantly reduce the occurrence of this issue. If one is skeptical that tickets solve these issues, look at speeding in Milwaukee vs speeding in the suburbs. Generally speaking, while speeding still happens in the burbs, it is with far less frequency and at much lower levels because people know if a cops spots them they’re getting a ticket. Meanwhile in Milwaukee, most cops don’t even have radar/laser devices to even tell how fast you’re going.

  16. Vincent Hanna says:

    If you think speeding isn’t a major problem in the suburbs, you don’t travel Range Line Road much. It’s 25 near where we live and people are constantly, daily, doing 45 and sometimes even more. I get passed by people all the time even if I am speeding slightly (about 30). I am surprised Glendale police don’t ever camp out on Range Line somewhere. It’s not just Range Line either. Trust me, speeding is a series issue in the North Shore burbs.

    Crazy loud music isn’t as much of an issue. Not that I have noticed anyway. I rarely hear someone blasting music. The biggest issue, bigger than loud music and bigger than speeding, is distracted driving. Everyone is talking or texting or whatever else they do on smart phones. I wish that would be banned and enforced.

  17. Gary says:

    The noise offence and impossibility of enforcement are not new issues – I bet this was even addressed on the “Happy Days” TV show — if the writers actually knew anything about Milwaukee.

    Can you envision Milwaukee’s “Fonz” statue lip-syncing a PSA on TV against excessive radio volume? (nope, PSA’s don’t exist anymore, no $$$)

    – A newer, but not “new” traffic issue that is also difficult to enforce are black-tinted car windows (but I shouldn’t even mention them in this thread since they don’t make noise).
    – Yet another newer gray-area traffic issue: drivers using the right-turn lane at a stop light to take a break and check their cellphone. They’re relinquishing the “right-on-red” turn, causing confusion with pedestrians, bicyclists, buses and even oncoming left-turn vehicles. As a mostly full-time pedestrain I see that regularly – again, no noise involved unless someone yells at them.

  18. AG says:

    Vincent Hanna, not that it’s not still a problem… but guaranteed they’re watching for the cops. Not to mention the likelihood probably goes down even more if they’re on Range Line north of Good Hope!

  19. Vincent Hanna says:

    I have lived here for 4+ years now, and I have never seen a cop just sitting on Range Line with a radar gun out. Not one time. Given how fast people drive on it, and how small Glendale is, I find that shocking.

  20. AG says:

    Not to get us sidetracked or anything… but have you called the GPD and the city to complain?

  21. Vincent Hanna says:

    I have not, but my wife and I were talking about it over the weekend.

  22. I ticketing is just a small part of the answer. Setting a new social norm is. People didn’t stop littering because of fines. People don’t stop at traffic lights because of fines either.

    Regarding jackhammer noise etc…. you would be surprised how regulated this sort of thing is. The city doesn’t bust concrete in front of your house at night. They follow the rules that respect how noise effects other people.

  23. BPI says:

    This piece is hilarious. Can we get a follow-up on the scourge of jaywalking?

    When did cities get so loud? Get off my lawn!!!!!

  24. Vincent Hanna says:

    I guess it depends on where you live and what you have to deal with daily. If I lived in an area where loud music was a daily occurrence, I’d probably be pretty pissed, especially if it happened at night on a regular basis. I just happen to live in an area where distracted driving is a much more serious issue.

  25. Jeff says:

    It all comes down to people failing to show consideration to others, and you see it everywhere. Harleys, music, distracted driving–it’s rude and selfish. And to Elizabeth Adelman: Thank you for not living in the city; we would never want you here.

  26. The Danimal says:

    Urban Milwaukee trying to get some that sweet WOW county right-winger add money? Simply ridiculous piece. “A free society must be tolerant.”

    As Colin said, this is nowhere near as prevalent as it used to be, and I would posit it is from car manufacturers using better speaker components in addition to the reasons previously listed. I never needed the earth to shake, but like Elizabeth Adelman I did enjoy some windows down tunes. The paper speakers GM used caused me to purchase after-market sound systems for a number of vehicles. The police working on the subsequent theft of those systems, as well as other actual property crimes would be a far better use of their resources.

    Kevin, I’m astonished. I thought your post facetious as first. Cameras and mic’s for sound violators? lol. Next stops, Orwell and Huxley, with a quick pop in by the Minority Report.

    For real though, I hope UM gets this content for free. I know numerous writers that would happily opine on issues that actually matter.

  27. Frank says:

    These boom cars are pure anarchy. The violators all of course disagree because they are insane psychos to begin with. Their minds are blown out on drugs and subwoofers. And let’s not forget that this isn’t music, its acoustic weaponry disguised as music.

  28. MDavey says:

    Agree with Frank. This is weaponry masquerading as music. The military has used it for decades. It is proven to be physically and emotionally damaging. All it does is cause those who can afford it —and those are the ones who pay the lion’s share of local property/”school taxes” by the way—to move farther and farther out of the cities and their suburbs. What metro area wants to be left with nobody but people in the lower socio-economic levels who are so frustrated and angry they choose to express themselves by sonic assault of anyone within rumble range? And those who are stressed out by being constantly subjected to such assault? Here’s what to do: Don’t bother giving a ticket and then expecting anyone to pay it, and certainly don’t bother putting anyone in jail over it. Just issue a citation for the first offense, and tell the perpetrator they must get the offending equipment removed from the vehicle. Put a flag on the VIN / Drivers’ license/ insurance, requiring the yearly safety inspection to check to see that the equipment has in fact been removed. If not, triple or quadruple the amount charged for the inspection sticker. Second offense, immediately seize the vehicle, impound it, have the offending equipment removed, and hold the vehicle in impoundment yard until the owner pays a hefty cash fine to release it. Third offense seize the vehicle, remove and destroy the sound equipment, and sell vehicle at public auction. Also, make businesses who sell and install this equipment mark each sound system with an ID number. Fine the business every time one of their systems is involved in a noise ordinance infraction. Another idea—if such noises are emanating from a home, building or from the premises of a certain address, first citation a warning, second citation, attach a hefty fine to the property taxes for that piece of real estate. If the taxes are not paid over a certain period with certain considerations, as in every community in the USA, sheriff seizes the property and sells the property at public auction. None of my solutions involve anyone going to jail. They all involve fines, taxes, liens, and / or seizure of property. Sorry, but some bozo’s “right to free speech” absolutely does not trump every one else’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. To that, I’d add, and the right to a reasonably healthy environment!

  29. Frank says:

    I made a hobby of exposing these people on YouTube. I make videos of them and upload them to my Christianpreaching YouTube channel. If you agree that bom cars are unacceptable, show your support in the comments section there too. One of my videos, “brainless bass zombies” is a good place to start

  30. Deshra says:

    Since my motorcycle wreck I have had to be so wary of bass I have to set my car’s stereo to negatives just to listen to music (Do understand one thing with motorcycles, loud pipes do save lives because drivers are too busy on their stupid phones and don’t pay attention, still there needs to be a limit)
    I have damaged vertebrae and everytime someone near our home starts pumping bass it’s like someone hitting me in the neck with a baseball bat. I have dropped to the floor in severe pain from being assaulted by it. Where we lived last the local PD started warning violators that they would begin facing assault charges. Of course this is after me and the dispatch officers had to have multiple arguments about PD not being able to handle bass in a rural area, they decided to uphold state law thankfully. For someone like me, it is a physical assault, when we went looking for a new place, we specifically asked every landlord about their policy regarding bass. The problem though is the violators have it blasting as they pull into the residential complex instead of being considerate and abiding by the law by turning it down once they near residential areas.
    Because of how much pain it causes me, I’ve considered many times building a mid-long range EMP to disable both the vehicle and the sonic weapon.

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