Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Noise Pollution in Four Parts: Death to the Car Alarm

My first order of business when I am anointed King will be to ban car alarms. Car alarms have evolved to create a kind of noise pollution unprecedented in the history of mankind while, at the same time, serving no purpose whatsoever. Here is my understanding of how we got here and my proposed solution.

When car alarms first showed up on the scene, circa 1980, they just honked the horn and flashed the headlights. There was no auto shut-off feature so, however annoying the noise was, at least, after a while, the car battery would drain and the horn would stop. There would even be a bit of cosmic justice when the car owner came back and couldn’t start his car. Since then, the car alarm sound has evolved into a virtual symphony of noise pollution. The current version, sometimes referred to as the “[Insert name of your school located in bad neighborhood here] fight song,” has four looping verses: European police car; air raid siren; high voltage buzz; and ambulance. This medley has become so well known that it’s even sung, with four groups, as part of a college drinking game. In case you’ve been hiking the Appalachian Trail for the past decade and are not familiar with it, here is a recording:

The Original Car Alarm Creation Story – Old Testament

The original theory of how car alarms would work was something like this: grand theft auto guy attempts to force open door of upstanding citizen’s car; alarm sounds; people within ear-shot stop what they are doing; burglar freezes in tracks; Upstanding Citizen A runs to scene of averted crime, pins stunned burglar to ground while Upstanding Citizen B notifies constable; constable arrives, apprehends subject; subject is incarcerated; all are given keys to city; crime rate plummets; more young families move to town; SAT scores rise; quality of life skyrockets. This scenario played out as planned approximately once in the 29 years that followed. And then, for whatever reason, people seemed to lose interest. I noticed this a few years ago when I was having dinner at an outdoor cafe in Cambridge. It was a nice summer evening and the street was packed with strolling pedestrians. I heard a buzzing, screeching car alarm, getting louder and louder. I looked up and saw that a car was driving slowly down the street with the alarm screaming. Everyone on the street pointed and laughed. “Ha! Check it out! The alarm on that car is going off. Bwah Hah Hah!” For all we knew, the guy driving the car actually was stealing it. Just driving right down a busy street, smiling, waiving at the friendly passers-by on his way to the chop shop. Felt like the end of an era.

Car Alarm Creation Story, Take 2 – New Testament

Why do car alarms still exist so long after it has become clear that people do not pay one single iota of attention to them? Perhaps because of the “better you than me” theory. Adherents to this school of thought believe that if having a car alarm makes stealing their car just a teensy weensy little bit more difficult or risky than stealing the next car over in the parking lot, then Car Thief, having conducted a quick cost / benefit analysis, will opt in favor of boosting the other car instead of their car. The problem with this theory is that it underestimates just how spectacularly easy it is to circumvent a car alarm. Notwithstanding all the revolutionary breakthroughs in car alarm technology, being able to get into a car that is not yours and drive off with it without a key is the car thief equivalent of having a second grade education. It has been years since criminal social Darwinism has eliminated all car thieves who were so grossly incompetent as to set off an alarm. They’ve all moved on to other realms, like getting masters degrees or becoming substitute teachers.


Car alarms as we know them serve no purpose whatsoever, other than to increase the level of global irritation. But isn’t there some technological advancement that can help prevent auto theft? South Africans have a pretty effective system. Their car alarms supplement obnoxious noises with near lethal electric shocks. Come too close to a car that’s not yours and you get laid out by a jolt that is one volt short of what it takes to kill a grown man. Effective in deterring thieves? Absolutely. Compliant with the United States Constitution and the Geneva Convention? Doubtful. Our whole American hang-up about things like “egregious human rights violations” and “capital punishment without a trial” will always stand in the way of a really effective theft deterrence system. Also, you have to be careful what you wish for, since 99.999999992% of car alarm triggerings are caused by the owner of the car. There are some GPS tracking systems like Lo-Jack and OnStar that, at the very least, let you find out where your already-stolen car is. For a monthly fee, a friendly operator from one of those companies can confirm the exact time that your car crossed over into Mexico or the precise spot at the bottom of the reservoir at the old quarry where your car can currently be found. Maybe not the most useful variety of peace-of-mind, but I suppose it helps if you’re the type who requires “closure” and such.

The Solution

I am positive that, with one simple adjustment to property law, car alarms will become, within about a week, a relic of the past. The statutory adjustment – an exception to the general rule that a person may not destroy another’s property – would read something like this: “During such time as a vehicle’s audible theft deterrence system is actively engaged, any individual may make physical contact with such vehicle, provided that any damage resulting from such contact shall not exceed $5,000 per individual.” Translation: anyone who walks by your car while the alarm is going off can do exactly what he naturally wants to do – key your door, slash your tire, crack your taillight. If, after a quick shopping excursion, you were to return to the parking lot to find that your car had been completely demolished, you’d think, “hmm, alarm must have gone off” and then, probably, “hmm, oughta maybe disable that thing.” And just like that, problem solved. Three decades of irritation-by-design irrevocably reversed.


Patrick Yerby said...

You get my vote for King... or is that an electoral college thing?...

veryfrank said...

I must be a fan. I actually listened to the entire car alarm symphony. In the morning!!!

Tracy Zager said...

We used to take ferries across the Puget Sound daily, and never had a crossing where the second mate didn't have to come over the PA with, "Would the owner of a (silver volvo/black BMW/insert pricey car here) please go to the auto deck and turn off your car alarm?" The sassier second mates would tease the dumbass owners who turned on a MOTION-ACTIVATED ALARM ON A SEA-GOING VESSEL. They'd say, "We haven't had one stolen off the boat yet..."