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Throughout the combustion age, communities have had to balance automotive enthusiasts’ loud and proud love of their engines with those who would prefer a quiet neighborhood. This battle hit a fever pitch as New York City installed a series of “noise cameras” which automatically ticket drivers up to $2,500 for excessive honking or engine noise. But experts worry that these automated machines have no oversight.

New York City is far from a quiet town. NYC’s “Department of Environmental Protection” receives 50,000 noise complaints annually. Though a small fraction of the complaints filed in “the city that never sleeps” concern loud vehicles and excessive honking, certain residents have zeroed in on motorists.

Traffic light, red light, yellow light, green light, traffic signal
A traffic light glows at an intersection | Hauke-Christian Dittrich/picture alliance via Getty Images

Keith Powers, a city councilman who represents the East Side of Manhattan, feels the city’s noise is a, “constant aggravation.” He is the primary sponsor of a successful bill to install $35,000 “noise cameras” in secret locations around the city.

The bill requires the city’s Department of Environmental Protection install at least five cameras in each of the boroughs by September, 2025. The Department’s commissioner, Rohit T. Aggarwala, told the New York Times that the city doesn’t disclose the camera locations so motorists with loud cars can’t just choose to drive around them. So what the heck is a “noise camera?”

The nuts and bolts: New York City’s “noise cameras” are just regular traffic cameras with microphones. They are programmed to begin recording when they detect an 85 decibel noise. They then send any offending vehicles a ticket for $800-$2,500. Presumably these tickets will be for excessive honking or engine revving.

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I have concerns about how well these will work: Obviously there are many noises in NYC that are louder than 85 decibels. We have yet to see how well these cameras can identify horns and revving engines. In addition, current Automatic License Plate Reader cameras can scan 1,800 registrations a minute. So how will “noise cameras” tell which car is the loud one?

Even if they work flawlessly, some experts have additional concerns. One of them is a lawyer named Jerome Greco.

“Whenever you have new technology that is capable of doing these types of things, it’s ripe for abuse. There are legitimate concerns…We’ve seen over and over again that any sort of monitoring or surveillance is often placed in neighborhoods with high populations of people of color…They seem to generally bear the brunt of any of these things…It’s going to be their word versus this machine that seemingly has no other oversight.”

Jerome Greco, Digital Forensics Unit at the Legal Aid Society

Mr. Aggarwala said that as of last month the city has issued 147 violations for drivers honking “excessively.” He has also issued 218 violations to drivers with “modified mufflers.”

So will you get in trouble for revving the engine in a stock sports car in New York City? Possibly. A lawn mower runs at about 85 decibels. In a Car and Driver test, many stock vehicles hit a volume loud enough to trigger NYC’s “noise cameras.” It is unclear whether the city would send a ticket to the owner of a 85+ decibel stock car or would try to establish whether the vehicle had been modified.

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