Chicago — If you're thinking of revving up the engine on that motorcycle or roaring off without the muffler, look first or you just might be in for a noise ticket. If you see any "noise prohibited" signs along the curbs, or a police car with an unusual-looking aerial and microphone protruding from a rear window, proceed with care or you could end your ride with a fine that leaves you $100 to $300 poorer.
Noise of every kind -- the grinding of garbage trucks making early morning rounds, the roar of construction drilling, barking dogs, blaring radios, and so on -- is the No. 1 citizen complaint about neighborhood quality, according to the annual housing surveys of the US Census Bureau. As in irritant, noise consistently outranks other key community concerns such as crime, deteriorating housing, and heavy street traffic.
Many Americans apparently are resigned to the clatter, feeling that a call of protest to City Hall will do no good. Yet a growing number of communities are proving them wrong by passing specific laws to keep noise levels tolerable.
Several cities, from Hammond, Ind., to Anchorage, Alaska, are toughening up old noise ordinances. Others are setting noise limits for the first time.
Just in the last five years, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates, the number of communities with noise ordinances of some kind has doubled to more than 1,000. Local noise control officials now are numerous enough to have formed their own organization and will hold their first annual meeting in Chicago April 2.
But EPA officials in Washington are the first to admit that laws on the books are not everything. They concede that only about 90 to 100 of the existing noise programs are really effective. Examples they consider worth following range in size from San Diego and Salt Lake City to Galena, Ill., and Trotwood, Ohio.
"Some places can tolerate a lot more noise than others because they don't want businesses to move," observes Lloyd Chaisson of the National League of Cities, who predicts in spice of this that the percentage of cities with enforced laws will increase sharply in the next few years. His organition, which, like the EPA, has a model noise code of its own, is surveying the extent and effectiveness of noise laws around the country.
The emphasis and enforcement methods of antinoise programs also vary enormously. In Des Moines, the city acts only when a resident complains. More than half the calls there concern barking dogs.
By contrast, in many other Midwestern cities where car and motorcycle noise is the prime complaint, squad cars patrol for noisemakers just as they do for speeders. In Memphis, where car horns grate on citizen ears more than any other source of noise, fines are given whenever motorists hit their horns too hard or too often.
Yet the universal aim of all local noise efforts is not punishment but education and voluntary compliance.
"Any noise program is really 95 percent public awareness," insists Horst Witschonke, a noise control specialist with the EPA regional office in Chicago.
"Often just telling a person a noise complaint has been made about him is enough to take care of it," agrees Vernon Adams, a noise specialist with the Des Moines Building Department. He spends many of his working hours telling dog owners how they can train their pets to bark less by a splash of water in the face. So far he has not had to pursue any cases in court, but he says he can see the day coming.
Despite the surge of noise ordinances recently, many communities dismiss the idea as a luxury their budgets cannot afford. It is these holdouts that EPA officials now are courting intensively with the message that a program can be simpler and cheaper than they think.
For one, communities can borrow equipment, such as sound meters, from regional EPA offices to test what they might want to buy. Also, EPA regional personnel offer geographically convenient free training workshops for city officials. The Region 5 office in Chicago next month will begin a round of workshops in the six states it covers. Requests for help are running at twice last year's rate.
Also under a new EPA program called Each Comunity Helps Other (ECHO), noise experts from one city may travel to another as advisers at the EPA's expense. Many communities are taking a regional approach to the problem, which they say is in their own self-interest.
Noise experts in Bloomington, Minn., took that tack after they found that half of the 5,800 vehicles they tagged for noise last year were from out of town. Helping other communities set up similar noise programs, says Robert Mood of the Bloomington Departmnet of Community Development, "cuts down on the guilt."
For its part, the EPA will soon propose revised noise standards for newly manufactured motorcycles and mufflers. However, most of the noise enforcement problem will remain local, since high noise levels tend to occur with older models or when someone tampers with newer models.
As Carol jordan, manager of EPA Consumer Education and Information Programs in Washington, says: "The basic problem with motorcycles is that those riding them and tampering with them don't think that noise is a problem."