Lawmakers stifle plan to reduce ‘unbearable’ street noise caused by illegal car mufflers
Utah House defeats bill to require muffler inspections as part of vehicle registration
Onerous noise pollution caused by illegally modified mufflers is nothing new to many Salt Lake City residents — especially those who live on or near State Street.
In Utah, it’s illegal to modify mufflers — by punching holes or adding attachments — to amplify engine noise, but many drivers get away with inordinately noisy vehicles because law enforcement agencies lack the resources to cite everyone who is in violation.
The Utah House narrowly rejected a bill that would have required that vehicles pass a muffler inspection as a prerequisite for registration.
HB72, sponsored by Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, ultimately failed by a vote of 39-35, but lawmakers seemed to be in agreement that street noise is a problem across the state.
“I live on a street that sometimes I get loud vehicles going by my house, and it can be quite loud, quite disturbing,” said Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper. “My concern with this bill has more to do with the enforcement mechanism.”
As proposed, HB72 would have required mechanics who do emissions inspections to inspect mufflers as part of that process, which Wheatley said would only require a brief, visual inspection. Stenquist said the bill seemed to him a “backdoor” way of reintroducing vehicle safety inspections — which the Legislature did away with in 2018.
Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, took issue with the bill because he saw it as putting law enforcement responsibilities in the hands of the vehicle inspectors. He also pointed out that not all counties require regular emissions inspections, which would result in uneven enforcement across the state.
“I think that’s kind of what we’re doing here. We’re taking one entity’s job and giving it to somebody else and asking them to do it. ... This isn’t going to catch everybody because not only is it not required in every county, it’s not required for every vehicle, so there are many of them that are exempt,” Thurston said.
Currently, inspections are required in Salt Lake, Davis, Utah, Weber and Cache counties. In Salt Lake County, vehicles older than 1967 are exempt, as are some farm vehicles, diesel vehicles and military vehicles.
Wheatley called the proposed change a “realistic approach” to enforcing Utah’s existing laws. It is illegal to use any sort of modified muffler or other amplification system, but Wheatley said the law is difficult to enforce because even when police officers use a decibel meter to cite a driver for a violation, defendants can often successfully argue that ambient noise contributed to the high reading.
By including mufflers as a prerequisite for vehicle registration, Wheatley said they are more likely to catch vehicles that are in violation of the law. He said the bill would have provided incentives for drivers to comply without levying citations or other penalties.
“It ensures that every car would be in compliance and prevents those cars from passing emissions, meaning that the registration will not be renewed until the issue is resolved,” he said.
“When I was younger ... I used to like to go to the Utah State Fairgrounds and watch single-track racing,” said Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville. “They were minis out there — they looked like the Indy 500, but they were smaller versions. And they did get really wound up to go around the track. I loved to do that. ... However, when I’m at home, when I’m at my residence, I don’t like hearing that noise.”
Dunnigan said he agreed that law enforcement agencies lack the resources to enforce noise ordinances and urged his fellow lawmakers to consider the bill as a meaningful step to improve air and noise quality in Utah.
“These are horrible. ... You think they’re going 125 miles an hour, they’re going like 6 miles an hour, but they are so wound up,” he said. “If you don’t like it, pass it just for Salt Lake County, please. We need this. It’s horrible. Pass the bill.”
“I rise in support of this bill at an average decibel level of approximately 83,” said Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, saying he had just downloaded a free app for demonstration. “I get contacted by constituents about the loud noises at night, and I lay in bed and hear the same thing.”
He compared the bill to putting guardrails on the side of the road, rather than putting them “at the bottom of the cliff to pick people up when they go over the edge. ... So to ask (law enforcement) to enforce this, I think is not wise given that a simple check upstream would make it so much easier.”
“It’s not an easy issue,” Eliason said. “The reality is, by the time somebody calls law enforcement to say, ‘Somebody just hit 200 decibels about three blocks from my home,’ it’s useless to try to enforce it. And so I think this is a sensible step.”
According to a KSL report from last August on the issue of street noise, Salt Lake City police received over 100 noise complaints along State Street since the beginning of 2020. After conducting their own decibel readings, KSL found 15 to 20 noise violations in 30 minutes.
Police officers know that noise is an issue, but often don’t have the manpower to enforce every violation they spot.
“On the priority list, this may not be as high as some of those other calls and as people well know, our staffing numbers have dropped over the last year,” Salt Lake’s Deputy Chief Lamar Ewell told KSL.
The House Transportation Committee gave the bill a favorable recommendation last week, with many of the same arguments brought up on both sides of the issue.
Street noise isn’t an issue unique to Salt Lake, said Barbra Cameron, president of the Big Cottonwood Community Council. Cameron told the committee that the current lack of enforcement has diminished the quality of life for those who live in or recreate in the canyons.
The bill, she said, “is a practical opportunity to reclaim good and quiet air quality.”.
Chad Smith also joined Wheatley’s presentation in support of the bill, calling it “an extremely easy, fast and common sense way to enforce the laws already on our books.”
“As I’ve discussed this bill with many neighbors and friends, it just seems like a no-brainer. To say that this is both necessary and popular, I feel is an understatement,” he said. “People I’ve talked with about this are shocked it’s even an issue that hasn’t already been addressed somehow.”