Vehicle Noise

Electronic roadside sign saying, "Loud Mufferls Prohibited"

The single most prevalent source of excessive and unhealthy noise in Providence is motor vehicles.1 This includes private cars, trucks, and motorcycles (both licensed and illegal off-road ATVs2), as well as emergency vehicles (police cars, fire trucks, ambulances), and commercial trucks used for cargo, garbage collection, and other industrial purposes.

It’s important, however, to differentiate between vehicle noise that’s ancillary to a larger purpose — for example, the sirens of ambulances rushing people to the hospital, or fire trucks racing to put out a fire — and that which is deliberately generated for no other reason than to disrupt the peaceful well-being of other city residents.3

The Noise Project supports efforts to reduce both types of noise, but receives far more complaints from residents about vehicles intentionally altered with specialized equipment such as modified mufflers and over-amplified audio systems4 or otherwise mis-used specifically to produce unnecessary and illegal levels of noise.

The difficulty in tracking and identifying mobile sources of noise is in part what makes them so pernicious — and thus appealing to those seeking to disrupt public space (and surrounding private property). But like other forms of air pollution, the mere fact of their transience does not relieve state5 and local authorities of their responsibility to actively enforce regulations limiting vehicle noise.

Among the policies that Providence’s city government should implement to address it are:

  • Deploy noise cameras to end vehicle-noise impunity and restore deterrence. The RI city of Newport is already testing noise cameras to address the prevalence of loud motorcycles there. Mayor Smiley included funding for a noise-camera pilot program in his 2024 budget proposal, but the City Council has yet to approve it. Contact your Council member and ask them to do so.

  • Prohibit the commercial sale and installation of modified mufflers — They are illegal to use under both Providence municipal code and Rhode Island law, yet are openly promoted, sold, and installed by businesses in the state.6 Such commercial activities should be prosecuted as a form of unlawful inducement to violate city and state motor-vehicle regulations. Other states have considered heavily taxing the sale and installation of modified mufflers to discourage it.

  • Treat the installation in a motor vehicle of over-sized / over-amplified audio equipment as evidence of intent to violate state noise limits. Just as the possession of drug paraphernalia or burglary tools is considered admissible evidence of criminal intent, installing sound equipment deliberately designed to vastly exceed 75 decibels demonstrates that the owner intends to violate city sound limits.

For more information, visit our Vehicle Noise resources page.

If youd like to get involved in helping to address vehicle noise in Providence,
fill in the form on our Volunteer page and check that box on the interest list
.

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1 As of mid-June 2024, data submitted to the Noise Project’s Community Noise Survey indicate that 93% of residents report being exposed to noise from vehicles.

2 The noise and public-safety danger illegal ATVs cause is so severe that the city created a dedicated Community Response Team (CRT) to address it — including a phone number (401) 6808288 and e-mail address ATVtips@providenceri.gov to report the location of ATVs. Most people’s experience of ATVs is from the noise they produce due to their lack of mufflers.

3 Another example of ancillary noise is highway traffic, which is a secondary effect of America’s car-centered transportation system. That doesn’t make it innocuous or even tolerable, but does explain its prevalence. Some noise denialists cynically cite highways and police cars as the only vehicle noise that adversely affects Providence residents — the former because its collective nature serves to absolve individual drivers of responsibility for the noise, and the latter because it implicates the government in contributing to noise, and therefore (to them) somehow justifies deliberately generating unnecessary noise.

4 In addition, and to a far lesser degree, the Noise Project also get reports from city residents about the use of vehicle horns to summon people, gratuitous car alarms and engine revving, and noise from highway traffic (see footnote 3 above).

5 Like most noise-related issues in Rhode Island, this is not a new problem — despite deflective claims by noise denialists. In fact, the RI House of Representatives first created a special commission to study motor-vehicle noise pollution in 1975!

6 Though it may be relatively easy to purchase an illegal muffler outside RI, the city and state are sending a mixed message to residents by allowing these devices to be openly promoted, sold, and installed — but not legally used. What other device or product is similarly illegal, yet can still be lawfully advertised, purchased, and commercially fitted to replace a legal one?