It's high summer on Miami's world-famous South Beach, and the sounds of the season are pumping from the open windows of cars cruising past the cafes and bars of Ocean Drive.
Along with perfectly toned roller skaters and attractive young Latinas, rap music that blares from car stereos and rattles windows has become a hallmark of one of America's trendiest strips.
But now, a new state law is turning down the volume on Florida's notorious "boom cars." Any driver who plays music loud enough to be heard by a police officer standing 25 feet away is at risk of receiving a $70 ticket. Previously the measurement was 100 feet.
"This is long overdue," says Douglas Fox of the Florida chapter of Noise Free America (NFA), an organization that has pledged itself to a war on what it calls audio terrorism. "There's been a real problem with amplified speakers for the last 20 years and with cars driving around with noise levels that are just frightening and a hazard to health."
Florida's new law is part of a significant trend to cut noise nationwide. The boom car has been a common target of legislation, and cities and counties in many states, including California, Georgia, Massachusetts, and New York, have introduced measures seeking to restrict the decibels. Chicago and New York City officers have the authority to impound cars, and drivers whose music can be heard from 50 feet in Papillion, Neb., face jail time.
Florida, however, has long been near the top of NFA's noise pollution list, and its cities are regular recipients of the group's monthly "noisy dozen" award. One such award was made in November after a St. Petersburg woman filed a high-profile lawsuit against a teenage neighbor claiming that the constant booming of the stereo in his Jeep robbed her of the right to peaceful enjoyment of her home. The case was settled out of court when the teen agreed to sell his stereo and make a public apology. He also sold the Jeep.
"Boom cars are part of the culture in Florida," says Ted Rueter, executive director of NFA. "Everyone has to be cool. The emphasis is on youth. There's the great weather with plenty of sunshine that just encourages them."
Not surprisingly, Florida's new law has not found favor with car-stereo enthusiasts. Many have invested thousands of dollars in powerful sound systems and say they're determined to use them.
"There's going to be a whole lot of lawbreakers out there," says Amar Bachan, who installs car stereos at Mexican American Sound in Fort Lauderdale. "People want loud music while they're driving. They might turn it down if they see a police officer, but they're not going to be put off by a $70 citation."
One such driver is Sam Huggins of Deerfield Beach, who paid Fort Lauderdale's Bianca Sounds almost $1,000 to convert his white Chevrolet SUV into a mobile music machine, complete with two heavy-duty subwoofer speakers that are the size of dustbin lids.
"You have to respect the officers when you see them," he says. "But when you don't..."
Those in favor of the new law point to more than just the annoyance factor. Audiologists caution against exposure to loud music for extended periods, and they say that young drivers who keep their stereos pumping may be putting themselves and their passengers in conditions adverse to healthy hearing.
"The greatest risk potential is the impact on these youngsters' future working lives. If they want to become a professional driver and get a license, they're not going to be able to do that, or join the military," says Prof. Barry Freeman of Nova Southeastern University, Davie, and past president of the American Audiology Association. "I'm in favor of anything that can be done to reduce noise."
Dr. Freeman points to federal guidelines for industry that define the maximum safe exposure times. For example, workers should not be exposed to noise of 100 decibels for more than two hours daily. Car stereos with 2,000-watt subwoofer speakers can provide up to about 135 decibels, and the sound of a jumbo jet taking off is 140 decibels.
Whether Florida's law is effective comes down to how police use their discretionary powers. Officer Bobby Hernandez of Miami Beach Police Department says that citations under the city's existing quality-of-life ordinance are "as common as speeding tickets" and that his force won't hesitate to use the new law when loud music is causing a disturbance.
"It gives us more authority and makes it difficult for a person to play their music to the point of annoyance," he says. "Officers assigned to Ocean Drive, and all of Miami Beach, are cognizant that this is a problem perhaps not so common in other cities."
Mr. Rueter of NFA, however, remains wary. "Police don't take it seriously enough," he says. "The problem is they insist on having to [hear] the noise. But they don't insist on observing a murder, robbery, or rape to do something about that."