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?

  • We have these in DC (one went by my office an hour ago), and they’re pretty freaking obnoxious… although they’re not much worse than the sirens we already have.

    Still, these, walking signal noises, and warning lights on the tops of buses, all add up to an increasingly unpleasant soundscape outside.

  • paco

    It may not be music to our ears, but my gut says this is a good move. Overall, NYPD is fantastic and truly does want to serve and protect us (even the cyclists) but when inattentive drivers and pedestrians don’t clear the way for vehicles responding to emergencies, situations can get worse.
    When I was knocked off my bike by an oblivious drivers, laying face down on the ground, unable to move I welcomed the distant sounds of police and ambulance sirens. I’m wiling to give cops benefit of the doubt that they won’t be using the Rumbler when it’s not necessary. If they do, well… it’s gonna be very obvious to everyone.

  • I won’t judge it until I’ve heard it. But I will say that conventional sirens are pretty bad. My building’s courtyard contains and amplifies the sound to the point where it can drown out conversation. And sirens are one of the reasons I wear silicon-gel earplugs in the street.

  • I drove an ambulance with a rumbler for a while, and I can tell you that its effect is similar to having some 19 y/o with twin 12″ subwoofers in his hooptie drive by you. It’s actually far more tolerable than a traditional siren, at least for short periods.

    It’ll be interesting to see if they catch on and are used consistently, though. We found that people didn’t respond much better to the rumbler than the siren, and the only thing that had a chance of waking oblivious drivers was the air horn.

  • I’m surprised that nobody has come up with technology yet for emergency vehicles to broadcast signals to cars that would shut off the radio and play a siren inside the vehicle. That would allow the sirens to be much much quieter, as they wouldn’t need to pierce the bubbles drivers surround themselves with. It would make life much more pleasant for pedestrians and people who live on busy urban streets. Car are required to be built with turn signals and horns, so why couldn’t there be a new requirement for an emergency signal receiver?

  • This sounds like the worst idea ever.

    Instead of designing louder and more obnoxious ways to get peoples’ attention, how about redesigning cars so that drivers can hear some of the noise around them?

    My guess is most drivers are perfectly aware when an emergency vehicle is approaching. Those that don’t clear the way either have nowhere to go or are too selfish to yield.

  • > so why couldn’t there be a new requirement for an emergency signal receiver?

    You’d then get to watch me hack this in seven minutes flat, and use it for very brief periods from an apartment overlooking a busy intersection, just for kicks.

    Always consider how your proposals can be mis/ab-used.

  • rex

    Why does our government hate us so much? I obey the law, ‘though it’s perceived scope has become unconscionable. Damage the ones who threaten us in our public spaces everyday and not my sensitive self propelled ears.

    Mark Walker once chastised me for my bicycle mounted air horn. After a pint or two of reflection, I agreed and binned it.

  • Thank you Rex!

  • valaire

    It’s not like cops will have anything pressing to do, when they are going to use them.

  • What part of “the rumbler is more tolerable than a traditional siren” are you guys not understanding? Sometimes I feel like this board is designed so people can only hear themselves talk and not see other’s posts. Since I see other posts, though, I know that can’t be true.

    People *don’t* hear always the sirens, because you can tell when a driver suddenly hears you and moves out of your way. There are those who deliberately ignore or try to make it through the intersection first, but most people simply haven’t heard the warning sounds because of their radio or the simple directionality of high-pitched sounds.

    Of course, you guys probably won’t listen to someone who drives ambulances and has used the rumbler, and will continue to post your uninformed opinions. Carry on!

  • Kaja

    Nanterking, the argument from authority’s appreciated. Cars being sensory dampeners, it’s hard to know what drivers are thinking when they don’t move out of the way. Yourself and Leo both speculate. Temperamentally I’m with Leo!

    Seems to me like the rumbler’s an improvement.

  • J:Lai

    Somewhat related –
    does anyone know if under NY law you are required to move out of the way of emergency vehicles using lights/sirens? Or this just a common courtesy?

  • First Google hit, http://www.nysgtsc.state.ny.us/emer-ndx.htm

    Do you have a driver’s license?

  • I think the reality is that in NYTC more than anywhere else, drivers consider themselves more important than emergency vehicles and react accordingly when they hear a siren. Nowhere else do you see such blatant disregard for emergency vehicle right-of-way.

    And those drivers who might want to do the “right thing” are pinned in by everyone else who’s stuck in traffic. Of course, the real “right thing” was to take public transit, walk or ride a bike.

    By choosing to drive, a driver is choosing to contribute to delayed response times and needless deaths when emergency vehicles are blocked from rapid access. But that doesn’t immediately affect the person behind the wheel, so it’s no big deal, right?

  • NYTC = NYC, above.

  • And here I thought NYC was getting quieter with the “no honking” enforcement of recent years. I hope that this system is on-demand, rather than constant with the traditional siren!

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