'Boom Cars' Do a Number on Eardrums of Passers-by

Times Staff Writer

Two sleek mini-trucks cruised slowly through the beach parking lot, proclaiming their presence with a steady beat of high-powered booms that rolled from the pickups to the sea, out-rumbling the surf.

On this blue, lazy beach day in Long Beach, Jesse Gonzalez and Eddie Lopez were out "booming" in their mini-trucks, playing the usual bass-heavy rap and soul music to shake up their cabs a bit--let the Cherry Avenue beach crowd know they were around.

In the ever-evolving world of car crazes, "boom cars" packed with elaborate, expensive and achingly loud stereo systems have become a nationally accepted badge of status for the young and the male, as well as an earsplitting annoyance to anyone within their expansive range.

Hood Mural

"It's something that's going on right now," Lopez said, explaining, with simplicity if not insight, why he has spent nearly $5,000 on sound equipment and collected $1,200 in tickets for playing it too loudly. "When hot rodding was in, why did you want to speed?"

Lopez, a hefty 21-year-old trash collector from Long Beach, cruises in a black Chevrolet mini-truck that seems propelled not by the forces of internal combustion, but by waves of sound that vibrate his cab seat with a nervous jiggle. On his truck's hood is a spray-painted mural of a figure of death carrying a limp woman.

"She died of sound, too much sound," quipped a friend.

It is too much for many communities that liken boomers' sonic stakeouts to a recurring migraine headache.

Officials in Long Beach, southeast Los Angeles County cities and Los Angeles have been trying to dull the thump of boom cars with ticket-writing crackdowns and in some cases, anti-noise ordinances. A state senator from Norwalk has even introduced a bill, passed by the Senate and now before the Assembly, that would make it a violation of the state Vehicle Code to play a vehicle's sound system so loud that it can be heard at a distance of 25 feet or more.

"I've had to sit at signals next to some of the deaf turkeys that own boom boxes and my whole body vibrated. They are a nuisance as well as a hazard," an angry Lakewood man wrote to Sen. Cecil Green (D-Norwalk), who introduced the anti-boom bill at the behest of City Council members from boom-plagued Southeast cities.

Even the hard of hearing are not immune. "I have been boomed until my bad ear had pain," an elderly Bellflower man wrote Bellflower City Councilman Randy Bomgaars, who has been crusading for quieter streets. "We're a society that's responding more and more to noise and chaos," Bomgaars complained. "We need to return to peace and tranquility."

Audiologists warn that the thunderous volumes of boom systems damage the hearing of boom buffs, and local officials worry that boom car drivers, oblivious to emergency sirens, will careen into police cars and ambulances.

Stories are legion of the decibel muscle of sophisticated car-music systems, which can take up the entire flatbed of a mini-truck. Speakers often number in the double digits in a single system, which typically costs from $2,000 to $15,000 but can range as high as $80,000. The sound can explode car windows, bulge doors and set speakers on fire.

Long Beach Police Lt. Ken Schack recalls one young man who pushed up the volume until he could flip a coin into the air. "Kaboommm, the quarter bounced up off the roof," said Schack, who has heard boom cars approach with their intimidating thumps from as far as four blocks away.

"When I was a youth," Schack continued with a hint of nostalgia, "all the cars had been lowered in the back. Now we have stereo systems that nobody can get in the car and listen to because they die of traumatic injury."

Not exactly, but the roar of super-loud systems does take its toll on ears. "No rational person would say these are safe levels," said Maurice H. Miller, chief of audiology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Equal to Airplane Engine

Dale Lincoln, co-owner of Car Radio Sound Center Inc. in Long Beach, says the average system he installs can attain volume levels of about 125 decibels, or about the same as an airplane engine. Workers exposed to that much noise in a factory would have to wear hearing protection.

Lopez is not worried. "I haven't lost none of my hearing," said Lopez, whose 3-year-old son, a budding boomer, likes to go cruising, even though he can barely see out the truck window.

Lopez so far has spent about $1,800 outfitting his second mini-truck with a boom system. His first truck, in which he had installed $3,000 worth of sound equipment, "got taken away from me at gunpoint" by two men who rode off with it.

The tickets Lopez and his buddies collect are seen as a relatively minor hindrance to the rites of booming.

700-Watt System

"We don't worry about them because all you do is pay," said Juan Chavez, a 21-year-old forklift operator whose black net pullover and black pants matched his black Mazda mini-truck. He has been ticketed in Downey, Compton, Signal Hill and Long Beach. The noise citations average about $90 apiece but are not moving violations and do not go on a driver's record.

Not that boomers want to get ticketed or think they deserve it.

"This ain't no crime. We're not hurting nobody," argues Gonzalez, a bell captain at a Long Beach hotel who cranks up the 700-watt system that consumes half the bed of his mini-truck when the situation warrants it, such as, "Girls, other cars, competition. Whenever you want to show off."

Lopez has what he calls "a police button" on his system. "It lowers the volume just like that." At his shop, Lincoln has even installed hidden switches on the floors of boom cars, enabling drivers to instantly silence their speakers without taking their hands off the wheel when a policeman rolls into view.

But even boomers can grow weary of riding around with an insistent blare in their ears. "Sometimes I don't put it in for two days or a week. I get tired of it," admitted 21-year-old Lalo Ponce, who has a pullout tape deck in his Nissan mini-truck.

Business Has Declined

The boom mania took hold about three years ago. And though national sales of boom systems continue to soar, Lincoln says his business has markedly declined during the past couple of years, from about 40% of his sales to 20%. He attributes the slump partly to police ticketing and partly to a police crackdown on cocaine sales, which he suspects have financed a lot of the boom systems he has installed.

Dave Wilson, owner of American Car Stereo & Security in Bellflower and Long Beach, also points to ticketing as the reason his boom car installations have fallen off within the past year. "It's costing me about $10,000 a month in sales," Wilson grumbled.

Yet despite increased police attention, the number of anti-boom tickets issued in the Long Beach-Southeast area is relatively low. Sgt. Don Reeves of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said that since the beginning of the year, 96 citations have been issued to boomers in the six Southeast cities policed by his department: Artesia, Bellflower, Cerritos, Hawaiian Gardens, Paramount and Lakewood. Long Beach traffic police estimate they write 6 to 10 boom tickets a week.

The citations are issued under the same section of the state Vehicle Code that Sen. Green is proposing to amend. The code now prohibits operation of a "radio system intended to make sound audible outside the vehicle when the vehicle is being operated upon a highway," wording that some local authorities say is too vague to clearly apply to boom systems.

"What we are trying to do is enact statewide guidelines that will allow local authorities to enforce the law," said Renay Montane, a legislative assistant in Green's office. The proposal would not, however, make the noise citations a moving violation. The penalty would continue to be a fine.

Cities, meanwhile, have taken action on their own. Los Angeles in 1986 added a section to the city code prohibiting anyone from playing a car music system that can be heard more than 200 feet away in a residential area. The Huntington Park City Council recently passed an ordinance making it illegal to operate a car sound system "plainly audible" at a distance of 25 feet from the vehicle. Bellflower last spring adopted an ordinance that limits noise from a boom car parked on private property.

"It's a universal complaint. It's just like graffiti. People are sick of it," Artesia City Councilman James Van Horn said.

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