Noise cameras would help ticket downtown drivers with loud mufflers under proposed city ordinance

Chicago may soon deploy automated cameras to ticket drivers with loud mufflers.

Under a proposed ordinance, cameras equipped with microphones would be placed in the downtown area so tickets could be sent to violators, possibly as soon at the New Year.

The devices, similar to speed cameras, would be attached to light poles.

Backers of the proposed pilot program hope to address the negative health effects associated with loud noises: high blood pressure, depression and even heart attacks.

Critics of the proposal say the cameras will target people who can’t afford car repairs — and are really a cash grab by politicians.

"This is basically the next red-light camera," said Josh Witkowski, legislative coordinator for the motorcyclist advocacy group ABATE of Illinois.

The cameras would also unfairly target motorcyclists because of the nature of those vehicles, he said.

Plus, the automated system is too easily abused, Witkowski said, as the history of red-light cameras has shown.

First-time violators would get a warning in the mail, according to the proposal. Then they’d face a fine under the current noise ordinance law.

Cameras for the pilot will be limited to the downtown area, bound by North Avenue, Ashland Avenue, Interstate 55 and Lake Michigan.

Despite the ordinance, the pilot program faces some hurdles. The ordinance is under legal review in the Public Safety Committee, and it still needs a public hearing.

Craig Kaiser, head of Streeterville Neighborhood Advocates and a member of Noise Free America, said he got several City Council members to back the ordinance after demonstrating how the cameras were successfully piloted in other cities.

The cameras, called SoundVue Noise Camera Systems, are made by United Kingdom-based Intelligent Instruments, Kaiser said. The company has installed noise cameras in London, New York City and Knoxville, Tennessee.

Chicago’s pilot would most likely involve a sound camera at one location, just as other cities have done in their pilots, Kaiser said.

The sound cameras work like speed cameras, except they’re equipped with a microphone that distinguishes between muffler and other noises, Kaiser said.

A technician would review the data and determine whether a ticket should be issued, according to the proposal.

Kaiser said his neighborhood association has asked police to enforce the existing noise laws to no avail. Using sound cameras was a second option to address the nuisance of illegal mufflers, he said.

The decibel threshold for violations is not specified in Chicago’s proposed ordinance. The limit will be set by the city transportation commissioner and the traffic compliance administrator, in consultation with the Office of Emergency Management and Communications and the police department, the ordinance states.

The proposal does not specify a fine but says violators are subject to the city’s current noise ordinances. The city’s current fine for loud modified exhaust systems is a $750.

In New York City, first-time violators face an $800 fine and a penalty of $2,625 if they ignore a third-offense hearing, according to the Associated Press. Sound cameras installed on the Upper West Side are triggered when sounds reach 85 decibels from sources at least 50 feet away.

The proposed Chicago ordinance, called the "Vehicle Noise Reduction Pilot Program," would expire Jan. 1, 2028.

Three of its sponsors — downtown Aldpersons Brendan Reilly (42nd), Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Bill Conway (34th) — did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

The ordinance is still in the Public Safety Committee, which is scheduled to meet Nov. 14.