I have lived in the once-peaceful Northeast Philadelphia for nearly 20 years, and I can't think of anything that riles the nerves as much as the collapse of public manners that makes city life more and more unbearable. This seems a simple problem to solve. Yet my complaints to city agencies seem to rank as a low priority. Indeed, these four-wheeled noise machines scoot right past police cars with seeming impunity. Why?
This is more than a case of bad manners - boom boxes on wheels are a potential health hazard. We hear much about the dangers of drivers distracted by their cell phones, but these deafening boom boxes are far worse, smothering all other sounds nearby - horns, sirens, any potential warning signals are lost to nearby drivers and pedestrians.
Modern car stereos with hundreds of watts of amplification can power sound to the point of pain - that's why I call this "assault" by sound. I've heard car sound systems so powerful that they make my ears ring and my chest ache. Powerful bass goes all directions. Driving in a car alongside one of these noise machines can impair the best of drivers; walking safely across a street requires intense concentration.
Lest anyone think that these descriptions represent merely a sourpuss in perpetual combat against the young, I'd refer them to the recent book Fixing Broken Windows, an urban classic by Coels and Kelling. It's premise is simple: Allowing small urban problems like graffiti, broken windows (and I might add, four-wheeled boom-boxes) to go uncontrolled gives residents a sense of hopelessness, and emboldens those who would break the law. This kind of behavior, unchecked, drives good people out of the city.
Several years ago, City Council passed a needed ordinance against hand-held boom boxes that teens carried on the street, public transit, or any public place where citizens were forced captives to the music. These small music players had a mere watt-or-two of power and were limited by the foot-speed and arm strength of the carrier. These were a mere nuisance.
Boom boxes on wheels are an ever-present threat, suddenly thrusting hundreds of watts of ear-splitting noise upon unsuspecting citizens.
There is an element of cruelty there, too. Some smirking drivers use their sound systems like pit bulls, to intimidate those who cross their path. The more we do nothing, the more we embolden these drivers to turn up the volume even more.
Council needs to specifically limit the kind of stereo systems that can be installed and played in vehicles in Philadelphia. If we can "boot" cars for a mere three parking tickets, we can certainly boot them for outrageous sound systems.
As for the drivers' behavior, we need immediate relief from our police department. Drivers who blast music should be considered reckless drivers by the police and treated accordingly. These drivers act as irresponsibly as those who are drunk, and the courts should deal similar punishment.
Thump . . . thump . . . thump. Mayor Street, Commissioner Timoney, courts and Council - are you listening?
Richard Iaconelli lives and writes in Philadelphia.