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CITYSCAPES / MARC LACEY

War Declared on Alarms That Go Chirp in the Night

April 05, 1993|MARC LACEY

The incessant chirping nearly drove Jenna Mitchell mad. Every few seconds, all through the night, the Venice homeowner would hear the same faint sound again and again and again-- beep . . . beep . . . beep.

The source was a neighbor's pickup, outfitted with an alarm that emitted a continuous noise to deter potential thieves.

"It makes you crazy," Mitchell said. "You want the car stolen or you want the tires slashed. All sorts of evil thoughts cross your mind."

Mitchell complained to her neighbor, to no avail. When she called the Los Angeles Police Department's Pacific Division, the officer at the front desk told her he had the same kind of alarm on his car.

Increasingly frustrated, she began a crusade to crack down on beeping car alarms altogether. She brought up the subject at parties and other gatherings and found others grumbling too.

Mitchell's offending neighbor has since moved on, allowing her to sleep peacefully once again.

But her war lives on, and it may soon change the L.A. automotive landscape as we know it.

Jenna Mitchell is about to have her revenge on that bleeping little alarm.

As endangered species go, the beeping car alarm is a fairly rare variety.

An accouterment to the standard alarm, the "audible status indicator" runs about $30 and beeps incessantly when the car is parked, warning potential thieves to reconsider. (Ordinary car alarms send this signal visually, through a small flashing red light on the dashboard.)

The audible status indicator is a relatively unsensational member of the car alarm family. After all, this is a town where voice alarms are programmed to scream in English and Spanish. Other alarms bark out "Stand Back!" if someone even comes close to a car. There is even an alarm in the form of a teddy bear that sits on the front seat; if the cuddly toy is moved an inch, it sets off an ear-piercing wail.

But the beeping devices have earned a special place in the annals of urban nuisances here in Los Angeles.

Spurred on by people such as Mitchell, Councilwoman Ruth Galanter is proposing that the city ban the sale of the devices from San Pedro to Sylmar. She is also recommending that those devices in operation be disconnected and that the city push for state and federal legislation to prohibit the sale of such alarms.

The bureaucrats are in Galanter's corner.

"The consensus amongst city staff," city analyst Tamara Metcalf said in a report, "is that audible status indicators are a public nuisance and can be a tremendous annoyance and disturbance to anyone who is subjected to listening to the constant beeping or chirping sound regularly."

The city requires that regular car alarms turn off automatically within five minutes--a move prompted by the much louder problem of alarms that blare their distress signals for hours on end.

The proposed addition to the law would require that the audible status indicators turn off within one minute.

In preparing the new ban, the city contacted 31 manufacturers of car alarms. Only one--Alpine Electronics of America, which is based in Torrance--responded.

Alpine project engineer Dean Kanemitsu did not argue against the ban, although he did raise some questions:

What about people who use car covers that do not allow potential thieves to see the flashing light on the dash? Will those who have the devices have to pay to disconnect them? What if the beepers could be turned off at night?

The LAPD has concerns of its own, arguing that the force is too small to handle infractions.

"Treated in a vacuum, this is not a bad idea," Deputy Chief Ronald A. Frankle said in a report. "However, in reality, it would be extraordinarily difficult to enforce."

The audible status indicator has its day in court--well, in City Council--on Wednesday.

It is not at all clear whether a beeping car is less likely to be stolen than one that sits quietly with a flashing light on its dash.

Even the Mobile Electronics Assn.--the trade group for car alarm makers--is unable to say for sure what works best.

Trade association officials cannot say how many beeping alarms are out there.

They do say that one in 10 cars in the United States will be broken into at some time. They add that cars without alarms are 25 times more likely to be stolen than are cars with alarms.

Some professional installers say they stock the beeping devices on their shelves but do not recommend them.

"I tell people that the noise just singles their car out," said Richard Graf, who owns Graf Automobile Radio Specialists in Hollywood.

Critics maintain that the city has become so full of chirping that the sounds mean little.

Steve Ashley, an entertainment attorney who lives in Venice, said the beeping alarms annoy him so much that he lodged a complaint with Galanter's office. "I park my car in many parking garages," he said, "and in some of them it's like being in a cricket field."

Ashley has had his car stolen twice over the years but still he has resisted buying an alarm. What is their purpose, he asks, when so many alarms cry wolf?

"I'm not unsympathetic to the use of car alarms," he said. "But as it is now, when you hear a car alarm in this city you do not go running after the thief.

You curse the owner and say: 'A bird probably landed on it.' "

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