Thursday, June 28, 2007

Car stereo speaker monsters

Car stereo speakers officialdom tries to turn down the volume on a road menace one enthusiast likens to 'the voice of God'

When Ritchie Warren plays his car stereo at a level he regards as unexceptional, the bass booms and snarls, waves of sound enveloping everyone and everything in their path. Mr Warren views the experience as life affirming. "If you think of explosions, thunder, volcanos, all release a subsonic sound. Booming sounds increase the adrenaline. It is a tribal and a cultural thing. Bass is like the voice of God."

But for millions in town and cities throughout Britain, the seemingly limitless power and ferocity of in-car music systems is closer to a curse.

Officials in London, mindful that the predicted summer heatwave is looming, have begun discussing how they might clamp down on the antisocial use of monster stereos. They are considering whether the owners could be penalised with penalty tickets or antisocial behaviour orders.

Many modified stereos will pump out up to 100 decibels but Mr Warren's system, once judged the world's loudest, can reach 154, comparable to Concorde. A jackhammer emits 80 decibels. Scotland Yard has been involved in the discussions and says it is willing to lobby for a change in the law to impose new restrictions.

Other authorities are experimenting with their own solutions. In Blaenau Gwent, officials have been targeting hotspots, hoping to modify the behaviour of those who cooperate and punish those who will not. In Tayside, police can confiscate offending vehicles. Discussions in the capital are being led by Valerie Shawcross, a member of the London assembly. "It is high time we clamped down on this sort of behaviour," she said. "No one objects to someone playing a bit of music as they drive along in the car. We all do that. But these stereos take us into an entirely different situation. People who live alongside major roads suffer incessant noise. It makes their lives a misery."

Jenny Jones, a Green party member and the mayor's environment spokeswoman, said: "This is noise pollution. The police could give on-the-spot fines and warnings, but most of all I would like them to make these drivers turn the noise down."

Marie Maguire, 42, lives in a second-storey flat above an intersection in south London. She says the noise from cars stopped at the traffic lights is intolerable. "Some of them shake the house. The windows rattle. Watching television is almost impossible. It is just getting worse."

The problem is far from straightforward. Anyone causing a noise nuisance from premises or from a stationary vehicle in the street can have an abatement notice served on them by local authority under section 80 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. But there is the practical difficulty of catching a moving vehicle and demonstrating that the noise, for the short duration it occurs in one place, constitutes a nuisance in law.

One possibility is that apolice or local authority officer be empowered to make a subjective "judgment of nuisance". They might then take action after obtaining the owner's details through the computer system.

The prospect invokes palpitations among exhibitors at Birmingham's NEC, where the car modifications industry comes together this weekend for the Max Power Live event, billed as the "fastest, loudest car show ever".

It's a meeting of the clans for those consumed by the need to make their vehicles the loudest, the shiniest, the most gadget- laden. The Pimp My Ride stand, promoting the fantasy modifications favoured by rich rap stars on the MTV programme, has pride of place.

So does Mr Warren's Dodge Challenger, its giant exterior speakers hoisted by hydraulics. He is part of Fuel, a company specialising in car modification and the accompanying lifestyle. Its slogan is Wake Up the Neighbourhood, Destroy the Street. Unsurprisingly he has no time for those who want a quiet life, especially those in London.

"It is a noisy city anyway," the 38-year-old said. "In the suburbs there are not a lot of ways for people to move themselves up the pecking order. So they bling their cars, they pimp their rides. It's boys but also girls with their pink cars and massive sound systems. They are queens of the street."

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