We are again at an election crossroads in which many voters are seeking "change." That's what this editorial is about-an opportunity to consider how changes by federal and state lawmakers impact you, the auto enthusiast. From emissions to auto equipment standards, the government is making decisions about your current and future car.
We're all aware of the legal difficulties in owning and driving a customized ride. All gearheads feel the heat of law enforcement whose mission of "To serve and protect" seems to add the tag line of "from the automotive enthusiast" in matters pertaining to us-but none so much as the driver of a modified import. Ever been pulled over for rolling too low or sporting an exhaust that's too loud? Ever had your car impounded on suspicion of a stolen engine or missing emissions equipment, simply because there's no way for you to immediately prove the contrary? This month, our friends at SEMA's SEMA Action Network (SAN) address several points of vehicle legality you need to know.
How Loud is Too Loud?
Imagine driving down the road and getting popped for the modified exhaust on your tuned M3. Now imagine sitting on the shoulder, receiving the citation while a stock Ferrari flies past on full afterburner. This is the scene being played on state highways across the country, the result of poorly drafted or ineffective state laws and regulations. The laws on the books in these states frequently cite the manufacturer's specifications or a factory installed muffler as the basis on which vehicle exhaust noise is measured.
On this topic, states can generally be divided into two major categories: states with noise standards and states without noise standards. Most states that have sound specifications choose to measure a vehicle's noise by decibels. States that have quantifiable noise standards on the books are shaded red in the map above. These standards often go unenforced. One reason these regulations are not enforced is that they are based on an in-use standard - exhaust noise is measured while a vehicle is in motion on the highway.
Other states choose not to specify a quantifiable noise standard. These states are shown in yellow in the map above. Typical language in these states' statutes includes prohibitions on "excessive or unusual noise" from a vehicle's exhaust system. While most motorists believe that exhaust systems should not be used in a way that causes overly loud or objectionable noise, these vague provisions fail to provide a clear and objective standard for those seeking more durable exhaust systems that enhance a vehicle's appearance and increase performance.
Language that effectively limits the use of aftermarket exhausts can be found amongst both yellow and red states. Such language includes sentences such as "no person shall modify the exhaust system of a motor vehicle in any manner which will amplify or increase the noise or sound emitted louder than that emitted by the muffler originally installed on the vehicle." While such language does not specifically prohibit all modification, it does not provide any means of measuring whether a vehicle has been acceptably modified. Such language also negatively affects the aftermarket industry by placing the noise limit authority in the hands of the OEMs and ignores the fact that aftermarket exhaust systems are designed to make vehicles run more efficiently without increasing emissions.
Green on the map identifies the three states that have enacted SEMA model legislation to provide enthusiasts and law enforcement officials with a fair and enforceable alternative. The model legislation establishes a 95-decibel exhaust noise limit based on an industry standard adopted by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).
Previous California law allowed modifications so long as the noise levels did not exceed the 95 decibel limit. However, the roadside enforcement of this limit was chaotic, leading to subjective, selective and improper enforcement.