NYPD Amps Up Street Noise With the “Rumbler”

As if constant engine noise, gratuitous horn honking, booming stereos and screeching car alarms weren't enough of a collective imposition on millions of New Yorkers, NYPD is about to escalate the street-level aural arms race with the "Rumbler," a souped-up siren designed primarily to pierce the cocoon of obliviousness enshrouding city motorists.

Expected to be installed in over 100 police vehicles this week, the Rumbler emits a low-frequency signal transmitted through subwoofers similar to those used by car audio enthusiasts. According to manufacturer Federal Signal, the siren has "the distinct advantage of penetrating solid materials allowing vehicle operators and nearby pedestrians to FEEL the sound waves."

"In other words," says Richard Tur, founder of Queens-based org NoiseOFF, "this ear-splitting noise will be heard and felt by motorists, pedestrians and people in their own homes at a level that can cause permanent hearing damage and seriously disrupt their lives."

As noted on the NoiseOFF website, Federal Signal warns Rumbler users to wear ear protection to guard against hearing loss. Yet, says Tur: "The NYPD purchased and installed the equipment with no oversight, no public hearings, and with no evident liability for the massive noise pollution they are about to inflict on New Yorkers, all in the name of public safety."

Though a 2007 article in the Times, when the department was testing the Rumbler, at least touched on the possible downsides ("To experience it is to feel a little earthquake beneath one’s feet"), media have largely treated this week's roll out as a novelty.

"People assume that noise pollution is an irritant or an annoyance," Tur says, "but noise pollution is a public health issue, and it is adversely affecting residents."

There is little doubt in these quarters that excessive traffic noise poses a significant hazard, though Streetsblog regular ddartley comments that his experience with the Rumbler -- at least from a few stories up -- hasn't been all bad.

I was worried when I heard that some ambulances in NYC were Rumblers. The low frequencies are audible up in our apartment, but are not ear-splitting, adrenalin-spiking terrors, like all the higher-frequency sirens are. If emergency vehicles would rely almost exclusively on the Rumbler and not the high frequency sirens, perhaps (PERHAPS!) that would actually be a public health improvement?

Another consideration: When police worry about drivers not clearing a path, is it because their sirens are insufficient, or because the street is so packed with other cars that there is hardly anywhere to go?