Sounds of the City Are Not Music to One Man's Ears
Ted Rueter

Both candidates for mayor of Los Angeles are focusing on "quality of life" issues, but neither has uttered a single word on the greatest threat to the quality of life in Los Angeles: noise pollution. In major US cities, noise levels have increased six-fold in the last 15 years. The Census Bureau reports that noise is Americans' top neighborhood complaint.

Noise isn't simply a nuisance; it's harmful. Excessive noise is associated with increased blood pressure, headaches, low frustration tolerance, ringing ears, and loss of sleep, and it affects sexual activity and student learning. Noise levels above 70 decibels increase the risk of heart attacks by 70 percent. Twenty-eight million Americans currently suffer from hearing loss. Dr. Luther Terry, a former U.S. Surgeon General, notes that "excessive noise exposure during pregnancy can influence embryo development."

Los Angeles is noisiest place I have lived, by far. I often wake up to the sounds of garbage trucks and jackhammers. On my short drive to UCLA, I encounter obnoxious leaf blowers, blasting car stereos, and honking horns. In the parking lot, I am assaulted by the sirens of inane car alarms and the pointless chirping of keyless entry systems. When I walk to my building, I am besieged by hedge trimmers, weed whackers, and sidewalk sweepers. In my office, I can often hear the beep! beep! beep! of delivery vans from three blocks away. When I go the student union, I face blasts from the video arcade and the blare of television sets.

Things are just as bad off campus. When I go to a grocery store, I am subjected to shrill music on the public address system. When I go to a movie, I am assaulted by thunderous trailers. Virtually all L.A. restaurants feature pulsating "background" music. When I go to LAX, I encounter ludicrous, repetitive announcements about the need to guard my valuables.

Many Angelinos have it far worse. There's never been a police, fire, or ambulance siren on my block. I'm not under a flight path, near a freeway, on a bus route, next to a train track, close to barking dogs, or within shouting distance of stores or nightclubs.

One glimmer of hope was the leaf blower ban first enacted by the City Council in 1996. Regrettably, the Council quickly reversed course. Bowing to pressure, the Council voted to ban only gas-powered leaf blowers. However, the partial ban is virtually meaningless. Gas-powered leaf blowers are everywhere (intent on rooting out Public Enemy No. 1: the leaf). Many gardeners defy the ban by using methane instead of gas. I have called the city to complain; my calls have not been returned.

New York is "the city that never sleeps." However, Gotham City is far ahead of the City of Angels in confronting noise pollution. In 1998, Mayor Rudy Giuliani stated that "noise pollution is a major problem. Even in a city as exciting as New York, people should be able to sleep without being disturbed by car alarms, blasting music from a club, or similar annoyances."

Giuliani has tripled the fines for repeat offenders of the city's noise control code (enacted in 1982). He is enforcing the law that requires all car alarms to automatically shut off in three minutes. He is encouraging car alarm owners to register with their local police precinct so they can be notified when their alarm goes off (before their car is towed). He has created Operation Last Call, a multi-agency task force designed to address the nuisance of local nightclubs.

New York also has a series of institutions to oppose the bombardment of noise. Its Department of Environmental Protection has a quality of life hotline; 70 percent of the calls concern noise. The mayor has a Council on the Environment. There is a citywide group (Friends Against Noisy New York). On April 25, there were observances of International Noise Awareness Day.

Why aren't the quiet-loving citizens of Los Angeles organizing against the noise bullies? Why don't the police and the city enforce the ban on gas-powered leaf blowers? Why aren't the candidates for mayor addressing this hazard to our quality of life?

And why does this city have to be so loud?

Published in The Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2001

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