Car Alarms: San Francisco’s Most Needless Nuisance

Going by the notes left on this car parked on lower Haight Street in 2003, its alarm wasn’t exactly serving its intended purpose. Photo: jennconspiracy/Flickr

You’ll have to forgive me if this post sounds cranky. I lost some sleep last night when I was woken at 3:30 a.m. by a car horn that continuously blared from my neighbor’s house for 20 minutes. It was probably triggered by debris blowing in the storm.

Car alarms are not an uncommon sound in my apartment, since my building has a parking lot instead of what could be ground-floor apartments and/or a backyard. My street is also lined with autos parked along the curb and in “driveways” (illegally), so my neighbors and I are surrounded by noise bombs that could be detonated by the slightest touch or glitch.

There are a couple of remarkable things about car alarms — one is how numb we’ve become to them, and the other is how utterly useless they are. The two are related.

False alarms account for as much as 99 percent of events in which automobile anti-theft devices are triggered, according to two studies published in the 1990s by the New York State Legislature and the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law. Car alarms are largely ineffective at deterring professional thieves who know how to work around them.

So no one’s actually alarmed by them. People are mostly just annoyed.  “An audible system is really just a noisemaker,” General Motors spokesman Andrew Schreck told NYC’s Transportation Alternatives in a 2003 report. “Most people, when they hear an alarm, they just walk the other way.”

Banning them seems like a no-brainer, though the legislative hurdles are apparently not insignificant. A TransAlt campaign to ban car alarms in NYC resulted in the passage of a 2004 City Council bill that included only ineffective measures.

Like NYC, San Francisco could — and should — be a much quieter place. I know if it weren’t for sounds from cars, I wouldn’t hear much other noise in my home. It’s not just some natural fact of “city life” — it’s a completely unnecessary byproduct of private automobile ownership, one that we’ve allowed to become inexplicably prevalent and persistent.

  • g_jefferson

    Being the owner of a car with an alarm, I’d have to … agree. They are useless. When is the last time you even turned your head when hearing one go off? For me and my neighborhood they either mean 1) Some lug-head forgot they even had one and tried to open their door without disarming it. or 2) a bus or a loud motorcycle just drove by. Next discussion. Why do buses and motorcycles get a pass on noise pollution?

  • jd_x

    “Like NYC, San Francisco could — and should — be a much quieter place. I know if it weren’t for sounds from cars, I wouldn’t hear much other noise in my home. It’s not just some natural fact of “city life” — it’s a completely unnecessary byproduct of private automobile ownership, one that we’ve allowed to become inexplicably prevalent and persistent.”

    Best quote of the article. 100% agree. That’s the thing about all this car noise: we act like it’s some side effect that we simply can’t get rid of, yet in reality it’s completely unnecessary and could be easily removed. Car alarms could easily be banned if the politicians really wanted to do it. Cops could easily enforce people honking for anything but emergencies and it would mostly go away. In the meantime, the auto makers could make horns much quieter: I think they are unnecessarily loud right now.

    At the end of the day, it’s about altering people’s preconceived notions of what cars do. Currently, we think you have to have noise with cars. But that is not at all true. We can easily change that, but people need to open to recognizing that the past doesn’t have to be the future.

  • jdock

    And it’s often followed by some incoherent yelling by the driver about being on the street on a bike even though that’s where bikes belong.

  • unbiased driver

    What I’ve noticed from reading these comments is that most of you seem to ride bikes or simply not drive. Unlike probably half of you, I was born and raised here and have had my car broken into twice (once and a good side of town, once in the bad side). I feel your pain about the blaring horn at 3AM but the owner can set the sensitivities of his alarm fairly easily. From feather setting it off to you having to physically kick it to set it off. “Alarms are useless”? Annoying when set off? … yes … useless?…no. Car alarms have ignition immobilizers that act like kill switches mean thieves can’t take your car. A car jacker would love your car unprotected. To be fair, never keep valuables in the car and in plain sight (that’s asking for it). If you have a Honda and do research, you’ll find these are the most stolen cars by most police reports. Tell the owner to lower the sensitivities on the alarm. Don’t outlaw alarms. That’s just stupid. Make it just a bit harder for a car jacker and possibly deter him with a little noise and security features.

  • De

    Haloplate seems to have fixed most of this overnight.

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