The State of California is considering leveraging enhanced surveillance to increase the number of motorists it can fine for noise violations. While the rules allowing the state to penalize motorists for emitting too much sound have existed for years, they were amped up slightly in 2019 when Assembly Bill 1824 went into effect and established the limits for what’s allowed today. The updated rules also required police to immediately fine anyone driving an automobile that’s emitting noise measured above 95 decibels, rather than issue a fix-it ticket. Motorcycles, which can occasionally exceed 95 dB in their stock format if they’re older, are limited to just 80 dB.
But determining when and where someone broke the rule is difficult, especially considering measurements were originally supposed to be taken under the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) test procedure J1169, so the coastal region is on the cusp of launching a new program that would introduce microphone-equipped traffic cameras similar to what we’ve already seen in New York and the United Kingdom. California leadership believes that an automated system would result in greater levels of enforcement by effectively mimicking the speed camera formula and applying it to vehicular noise violations.
Senate Bill 1079 specifies that a sound-activated enforcement system could be deployed along roadways that would become active whenever the microphone records excess noise “to obtain a clear photograph of a vehicle license plate.” But it leaves AB 1824 otherwise intact, retaining the existing decibel limits and mandate to fine offenders rather than allowing them to repair their vehicle — minus a temporary grace period where drivers will be informed when they enter an enforcement zone using the new cameras and given a warning on their first offense.
The scheme seeks to roll out the cameras in six major cities as part of a pilot program. While they’ve not yet been named, those selected are said to have the authority to place the cameras wherever leadership believes they’ll do the most good. But they’ll still be operating under some fairly strict guidelines, at least initially. According to AutoWeek, those cities will also have to establish payment plans, deferment options, and fine waivers for low-income vehicle owners who demonstrate a temporary or indefinite inability to pay — that’s in addition to signage indicating that drivers are entering a sound-monitoring zone and the aforementioned grace period.
While the exact amount motorist would be fined has yet to be finalized, the money is supposed to go toward funding “traffic calming” measures. These include things like adding speed bumps, bike lanes, isolated or elevated pedestrian walkways, roundabouts, and anything else California believes might reduce traffic noise and motor-vehicle speeds. It’s also assumed that some of the funding would be rolled back into enforcement in the hope that it would create additional revenue. Of course, this would only happen if the state decides the pilot program was successful.
Concerns involve the usual fears about increasing state-sponsored surveillance and exactly how these cameras determine which car or motorcycle is making all the noise on a busy street. Opponents have also suggested that microphone-equipped cameras would violate California’s law that prohibits recording private conversations. However, those laws do not apply to law enforcement if the deed is done to gather evidence of an offense, even if it’s technically unrelated.
But the real pickle is the fact that many bone-stock conveyances already exceed the limits issued under the older AB 1824. While it makes special exemptions for motorcycles manufactured prior to 1985 — there are plenty of modern bikes that still exceed the 80 dB limit. AutoWeek pointed out that the same is true for the 95 dB limit placed on cars:
These cameras will pose a conundrum for manufacturers and enthusiasts alike. Some cars and many motorcycles, depending on the road and driving style, will easily exceed the 95 and 80 decibel limits straight from the factory. Based on Car and Driver testing, examples include the 2016 Porsche 911 GT3 RS (108 decibels) and the 2019 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 and 2019 McLaren 720S Spider, both at 99 decibels.
It will be curious to gauge the accuracy of the enforcement devices, how manufacturers will continue to alter vehicles for California markets, and if the progressive penalty policies become a blueprint for more equitable traffic enforcement. In the meantime, California residents will be making the switch over to the high-pitched hum of electric power anyway.
But what about vehicles with a leaky manifold or a muffler that’s taken some unplanned abuse? Those are things one could explain to an officer in the hope that they’d be let off with a warning. But cameras won’t be differentiating between an intentionally modified Nissan GT-R blowing flames out of its exhaust and a mid-90s economy car that’s badly in need of maintenance because the owner is poor. The same is true for motorcycles built before and after 1985. They’ll all be issued automated fines by mail, with the individuals possessing valid legal excuses becoming entangled by new bureaucratic red tape before there’s any hope of the fine being dropped.
I’m not opposed to governments setting realistic decibel limits that mesh with desires of local residents. But automated enforcement seems like a can of worms perhaps best left unopened — not that it really matters at this juncture. With the California State Senate having already passed the five-year pilot program and the resulting legislation just waiting on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.
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