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Refusing to go quietly

Backed by laws that allow higher decibel levels for mufflers, a small group of car enthusiasts faces down anti-noise activists.

June 02, 2004|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

"You have got to let people live," says Maurice Johannessen, the author of legislation that legalized hot rod mufflers in California.

By letting them live, he means modifying their cars with high-performance exhaust systems. Increasingly popular among owners of pickup trucks, SUVs and high-performance cars, these mufflers can put out four times the noise of original mufflers that come equipped on new vehicles.

To the minority of motorists who pay up to $1,000 for a hot rod muffler, the sound is street music -- a brawny statement that draws attention. To schools, workplaces and those who value quiet neighborhoods, it is an incivility that contributes to rising levels of noise pollution across the nation.

Johannessen said he crafted two key pieces of legislation in 2001 and 2002 under the sponsorship of the Specialty Equipment Market Assn., the Diamond Bar trade group that represents suppliers of performance equipment.

"I did quite a few bills for SEMA," said the former state senator who now develops real estate in Redding. "Popular Mechanics" magazine once dubbed him the "hot rod senator."

The mufflers made legal by Johannessen's legislation can produce up to 95 decibels, measured 20 inches from the tailpipe with the engine revved up. By comparison, standard mufflers equipped on cars and small SUVs produce about 75 decibels, a fourfold difference in volume.

Johannessen said he based the 95-decibel standard on the noise levels produced by big rig trucks. Thankfully, of course, there are fewer tractor trucks than passenger vehicles and most big rigs do not travel down residential streets.

Before Johannessen's legislation, which SEMA is pushing in states across the nation, police could use their own judgment on what sounded too loud and often issued tickets for aftermarket systems that offended their senses. Perhaps not any more.

Now, a motorist who receives a ticket for excessive noise can take his system to a referee station and test it to see if it does exceed 95 decibels. The association boasts that since the Johannessen legislation, 90% of the cars tested have been cleared.

What that says is that mufflers long deemed a social menace by the police are now legal.

Steve McDonald, SEMA's legislation chief, explains: "We put the onus on law enforcement to prove a violation. We are not trying to create a loophole. All we are trying to do is create a system that allows our customers to prove they comply with California statutes."

McDonald asserted that the 95-decibel standard was considered too low by many. "It appears to be a good number," he said.

Johannessen has a frank view of critics and others who don't like the new system.

"Those people want to stop leaf blowers and all that stuff," he said. "The reality is that you have to accept that noise is commerce and industry. It is a sign of activity, wages and salaries. I don't think you are going to solve anything by lowering it."

Noise Free America, an anti-noise group in New Orleans that was founded by former UCLA professor Ted Rueter, says cities are becoming hostage to "noise terrorists," people who make noise intended only to upset the general public. Last year, the group gave SEMA one of its "noisy dozen" awards. It recently awarded Burbank the distinction of one of the noisiest cities in America.

Johannessen, who builds hot rods in his spare time, sees such environmentalists as a threat to his hobby, saying, "There is the efficiency of the engine at stake."

But hot rod mufflers boost performance only modestly, an increase of 5% to 10% of horsepower, according to Borla Performance Industries, an Oxnard manufacturer widely considered to be the Rolls Royce of aftermarket muffler companies. Borla systems are generally among the least noisy.

"Ninety-five decibels is really loud," said Chris Kaufmann, Borla head of motor sports and public relations. "What really irritates everybody is that there are a lot of ear-piercing systems."

Using special Kevlar-based material and stainless steel mesh, Borla can upgrade performance but keep noise below 95 decibels, Kaufmann said.

George Adelsperger, chief of the technical services branch at the Bureau of Automotive Repair, which runs the referee stations, notes that some aftermarket mufflers have "tailpipes big enough to hold a bowling ball."

Noise regulation of vehicles has been in retreat for four decades. In 1959, the state Legislature altered the Vehicle Code to say: "No person shall modify the exhaust system of a motor vehicle in a manner which will amplify or increase the noise of the motor of such vehicle above that emitted by the muffler originally installed on the vehicle, and the original muffler shall comply with all the requirements of this chapter."

What has happened since then is more than a dozen revisions weakening controls on vehicle noise, mainly to satisfy a tiny minority of motorists --probably fewer than 5% of car owners, based on market statistics -- who want to make noise.

"We actually lose sales because our systems don't make enough noise," Kaufmann said. "We are barraged with criticism that we don't make enough noise and that people want to be heard. There is certainly a crowd that wants it louder."

That is essentially the crowd that won a big victory with Johannessen's legislation.

"SEMA is doing a tremendous service," Johannessen said.


Ralph Vartabedian can be reached at

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