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There has been a lot of noise involving loud exhausts in populated city centers lately. Following the most recent efforts in New York City using microphone-equipped traffic cameras to automatically cite drivers for “excessively” loud exhausts, this anti-loud exhaust legislative movement is starting to generate momentum, now landing in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

The case of Knoxville is slightly unique, however. These remote cameras and microphones will record all events over a certain dBA (dB but factoring in the way humans hear sound) and frequency threshold and beam the footage along with license plate data to a remote server where they can be later reviewed by a real person that decides if it warrants a warning. This means that the cameras aren’t always capturing but acting more like a sentry. Or a snitch. 

After the data has been captured, someone in an off-site control room reviews the footage, presumably with a set of headphones and dBA meters to decide if a crime was committed or not. There is also a computer interface recording specific data about the event, as well as sound levels. According to the video posted by the city, they are using this to gather data on “what kind of vehicles we’re facing when it comes to the noise issue downtown.” Throughout the video, a Dodge Charger cop car and an Infiniti G37 are used as loud car demonstrators, which feels targeted toward a certain group of car people. 

These cameras are made by 24 Acoustics Ltd. out of the U.K. and are actually being loaned to Knoxville as part of a short-term demo for the city. It’s part of a pilot program to potentially extend the net that the cameras cast over the city, with the potential to move into suburban areas. Knoxville city ordinances state that 82 dBA is the maximum allowed sound level for vehicles along with a 35 mph speed limit in most areas. 

There is an upshot to this: Knoxville currently cannot issue citations for excessively loud cars. Surely this won’t last long, but it will be a while before Knoxville follows in the footsteps of NYC. It still is all moving toward this trend of cracking down on loud cars and keeping cities quiet, which frankly, I’m all for. It becomes a problem when otherwise law-abiding enthusiasts are getting hurt by these laws, especially when they have a database of cars that are most likely to be offenders. Then we get more gratuitous traffic stops and more harm to communities and people from unnecessary interactions with police.

I won’t go as far as calling all of this exhaust volume nonsense its own form of Not in My Backyardism (NIMBYism), but it sure is approaching a level that is becoming concerning to enthusiasts. The truth is this: Arbitrary powers held by the state to penalize motorists (usually enthusiasts) has been wielded for a while now. Most notably in my home state of California, where cops were allowed to determine, without any sort of equipment, if an exhaust was too loud.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), noises at 80 dBA are equivalent to standing 100 feet away from a train, which honestly doesn’t seem like a high threshold in comparison to Knoxville’s 82 dBA limit. Plenty of factory, dead-stock performance cars will be able to exceed that easily and not even expensive ones. A Hyundai Veloster N would likely shatter this if the owner decided to do a rapid dash to 35 mph from a stoplight. Any number of high-end European performance cars like Porsche 911s, Jaguar F-Types, and mostly any BMW M car will also find themselves to be on the wrong side of the law, without any sort of modification. This is the crux of the city exhaust volume problem.

There are federal sound tests in place that determine how loud a car can be for sale in the United States. Actual, verifiable regulations that every automaker has to abide by. Why don’t cities use those? It would cut all of the guesswork, the arbitrary enforcement of the law, and the general bullshit surrounding these exhaust laws. If the federal language stipulates a distance and testing method for a microphone, the rest of the country should follow suit. 

Although this Knoxville system of having a person review the data instead of an algorithm is a better solution, it is far from perfect. The program will likely “succeed” and get passed along into law, but there is still much work to do to achieve quieter cities, especially without being punitive to car enthusiasts. 

I, for one, would much rather just ride a train into the city.

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