City Council has received many reports concerning loud vehicle noise that is disturbing our downtown residents and businesses. Now to clarify, we aren’t talking about normal traffic noise or the typical sound one would expect in an active and vibrant downtown like we have in Knoxville. The reports concern intentionally loud engine and exhaust noise that is disturbing sleep and interrupting quality-of-life.
In response to resident input, a pilot program was launched in February 2022 that uses new technology in the form of a camera that specifically targets traffic sound by analyzing the level of sound a vehicle is producing and then takes a picture identifying the offending vehicle. The detector only recognizes engine and exhaust noise of a vehicle and does not consider music or even loud conversations. In fact, the algorithm used by the sound camera only registers noise above 86 decibels. For example, sound at 86 decibels is like standing next to or operating a gas-powered leaf blower. That’s not typical ambient background noise even for our active downtown atmosphere.
The results of the Downtown Traffic Noise Camera Pilot Program were reported to Council at our July 21, 2022 workshop. You can watch the workshop here on Knoxville Community Media. From the launch of the pilot program until July 12, 2022 there were 1,300 sound events above 86 decibels. The loudest events registered above 100 decibels which is the equivalent sound experienced attending a live rock concert. These events most often occurred in clusters at 8PM on Saturdays and 2AM on Sundays.
Analysis of the data produced by the pilot indicates the events above 86 decibels were caused by intentionally modified mufflers and not from typical sounds produced by a vehicle. It is important to note that Tennessee state law requires motor vehicles driven on any road to have a muffler that is in good working order and operation to prevent excessive or unusual noise and it is unlawful to use a muffler cutout. (See, TCA §55-9-202) Violations are considered a class C misdemeanor. The city of Knoxville’s ordinance in chapter 17, closely mirrors that of state law. (See, Section 17-383)
These results illustrate what our downtown residents and business owners have been telling Council about the traffic noise they are experiencing. The noise camera is cutting edge technology that can be an additional tool in our toolbox for reducing noise pollution. Ultimately this is a quality-of-life issue and we need to use all the tools at our disposal to maintain everyone’s enjoyment of our city. As I mentioned in the workshop, “increased traffic noise levels are not isolated to our downtown” and, if ultimately approved, this technology could eventually be deployed in other parts of our city.
The next step is to see if we can blend this new technology with our current ordinance regarding the intentional modification of vehicles to produce louder and disruptive engine and exhaust sounds. Remember, there was a time when red light cameras were on the cutting edge of technology too. Now, this technology issues almost 44,000 citations a year.