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Why St. John’s Struggles to Regulate Noisy Vehicles (and What Ward 2 Candidates Would Do)

in Featured/Interview/Journalism by

Back in the spring of 2009 there was a committee meeting. According to the meeting notes, members of the Police and Traffic Committee (including city councillors, city staff, and Sgt Paul Murphy from the RNC) met that day with John Dinn (then-MHA for Kilbride) “at his request” to “discuss the issue of motorcycle noise.”

In notes for the meeting, Sgt Murphy acknowledges the noise problem from “after market exhaust systems for motorcycles and cars.” He then explains that the RNC cannot do much about it without a change to the Highway and Traffic Act [HTA] to include noise standards. So the committee recommended that Council address the province and “request changes to the Highway Traffic Act to deal with excessive noise levels caused by motorcycles with modified or non-OEM [original equipment manufacturers] muffler systems.” 

MHA John Dinn explained to the committee that the House of Assembly would not be able to deal with the issue until the next session in the fall. Then he left the meeting. And that was that. I did speak to him this week, but he said he only vaguely remembers the issue and that “nothing ever happened” that he can remember. Whatever one retired MHA remembers, the Highway and Traffic Act still is not amended to include specific objective noise standards (decibel levels) that police can meter. 

If the RNC still can’t police the noise effectively, why not the City? The province’s City Act does state that “The council may … regulate or prohibit… the use of noisy vehicles in the streets, or the making of unnecessary noises in the city” (along with prohibiting the “unnecessary ringing of bells, blowing of whistles by locomotives, factories and steamboats,” LOL). But it also says, “the council shall have power to make rules, regulations, and by-laws … provided always that those rules, regulations and by-laws shall not be contrary to the laws of the province.” Well now, let’s check back in with the HTA (which is most certainly “a rule of the province”); it lays out which regulatory powers a city may have. Spoiler: stopping moving vehicles for noise violations is not one of them. 

So, after years of ear-splitting engine noises each summer, the city’s Noise By-Laws still only address “engine or motor” noise for stationary vehicles (and decibels are mentioned only in relation to heat pumps and exhaust fans). But at least this makes sense now, right? What would be the point of crafting some great by-law that is inherently illegal to either enact or enforce? But, if the HTA could be changed to allow the RNC to effectively deal death to decibels, it could also, conceivably, be changed to allow the city to deal with moving vehicles and their screams. Though that, in turn, brings up massive tangly practicalities of enforcement (which we can discuss another day).

Either way, having clearly established—as far back as at least 2009—that the issue of excessively loud vehicles is a problem best solved by amending the HTA, the city has been fielding complaints in impotent frustration ever since. When something happens on our street, in our neighbourhood, we call the city or the police. How many times do you call your MHA? The police can’t enforce what is not explicitly regulated, and the city cannot enforce what the province does not give them jurisdiction over. 

Over the next month I will be looking into more of the history and current state of regulations meant to enforce loud cars and motorcycles: where complaints are coming in, what citations have been issued by the RNC, the game of hot potato that is the passing back and forth of this loud peeve between the city, the province and the cops. 

But, since it is byelection time, and since the future Ward 2 councillor will be fielding these complaints, no matter how hard their hands are tied on the issue legally, I went ahead and asked the ward 2 candidates a few pertinent questions. 

According to my notes from when I was drunk, Matt Howse won the Town Hall put on by the SJ Social Justice Co-op and Ophelia Ravencroft came in second. So they get to go first and second. The rest are just higgledy-piggledy.

Is excessive noise from motorized vehicles an issue in Ward 2?

Matt Howse: Yes and it has been an issue for a long time.

Ophelia Ravencroft: God yes it is! In general, we need to be much more sensitive to unwanted noise, and motorcycle noise is certainly a major producer thereof. I’ve lived in various places around the Ward and have had issues with vehicle noise everywhere. It’s definitely a problem.

Carol Furlong: It is my understanding that complaints have been made about noise in certain areas.

Greg Smith: Yes certainly, in certain areas it is more prevalent but throughout the ward and city it is an issue! 

Lorne Loder: Absolutely. This has been a major issue and bone of contention for a long time. I’ve spoken to countless residents who take issue with loud exhausts, particularly aftermarket exhaust systems, and I am included in that group. This is an issue I’ve taken up with Council myself in the past. It seems clear to me that the vast majority of residents are opposed to such exhaust systems and only a small few are in favour of them. Given we live in a democracy, the decision should be simple; there should be a by-law in place to protect against unwarranted noise pollution.

Wallace Ryan: Excessive noise is a huge issue in Ward 2. I’ve lived in the downtown for almost 30 years and I have never [anywhere else] experienced the acoustic nightmare inflicted on the residents of the downtown by a small minority. The noise is not only a pain for the residents but after talking to a lot of the businesses on Water Street during the Pedestrian Mall this summer, many were convinced that these excessively loud vehicles have cost them business.

Greg Noseworthy: Excessive noise is an issue throughout St. John’s and all of ward 2, not just downtown

Shawn Skinner: Yes and throughout the City.

What is the City’s role in dealing with it, and what would you do if elected?

Matt Howse: The way I understand the situation is that the City does not currently have the power to develop and enforce by-laws pertaining to vehicular noise, etc. This is a provincial regulatory issue. However, the province could amend the City Of St. John’s Act to make such municipal regulations possible. That way the City could develop and enforce its own rules that take into account decibel levels, population density, etc. I would therefore lobby the provincial government to make the necessary legislative amendments.

Ophelia Ravencroft: While present regulations for this ultimately stop with the province, I think the City should take a more active role in uplifting community voices that know how important these changes are. If we have authority as members of municipal government, we should use it to aid in forming relevant connections with MHAs and facilitating dialogue. We have a vested interest in making this happen, and I’m unwilling to sit by and simply say it can’t be done at our level.

Carol Furlong: Moving vehicles are governed by provincial legislation and are the responsibility of the province, not the city. As Councillor I would assist a complainant in any way I can in addressing a problem. I believe people are entitled to a certain quality of life, including not have to live with noise pollution.

Greg Smith: I think there is obviously criteria that is in the provincial government’s jurisdiction that they need to step up and enforce. When elected I would fight and lobby them for stricter fines and make sure they uphold current legislation, as a city I believe we need to have more severe fines and pass new by-laws against cars and motorcycles that are disturbing the peace of our residents. We need to look to other municipal jurisdictions throughout our country for ideas and feedback on what has worked and what hasn’t.

Lorne Loder: When enquiring in the past, I’ve continuously been told by city officials that this is a Provincial issue and governed by the Department of Highways. However, the City of St. John’s does have the “BY-LAW NO. 1405 AMENDMENT NO. 1460, & 1508 NOISE BY-LAW”,  commonly known as the “St. John’s Noise By-law” and it references many forms of noise pollution, but not exhaust pipes from motor vehicles. I see no reason why this by-law cannot be amended to include excessive noise from motor vehicles. Other urban centres, such as Edmonton for example, have done just that based on decibel levels and enforced by local police. Please see link here: https://www.edmontonpolice.ca/TrafficVehicles/TrafficNoise

This is a matter I would discuss with the City of St. John’s Legal Department to delve into it further to seek a resolution and solution.

Wallace Ryan: So far, the city’s role has been one of all talk and little action. If elected, I will call for traffic calming measures, an improved noise by-law and stricter enforcement of existing exhaust and speeding laws.

Greg Noseworthy: The city has a smaller role than people think due to legal jurisdictions and power of enforcement. They cannot tell the RNC to focus on noise as some may think. The city simply has less power than people believe. The role I believe it can take to handle this is by introducing traffic calming measures such as speed bumps, narrowing barriers, and creating lower speed limits. This is within the city’s jurisdiction and something I would push.

Shawn Skinner: We have a noise by-law, let’s review it to see if it does what it was intended. If not, re-write it.

If you had to choose for your own recreation either a muscle car or motorcycle, what would you choose? Feel free to specify make/model/colour/racing stripes/modifications etc. 

Matt Howse: Honestly, I am more than content with my bicycles right now…but someday I would like to get one of those little gas-powered engines put on my road bike so I can fly up Long’s Hill without pedalling. I would rename the bike “The Cannon” and have Ron Hynes’s silhouette painted on the head tube.

Ophelia Ravencroft: I don’t drive and don’t want to start, but if there’s a gun to my head – a VW Microbus, converted to biodiesel, with my wife riding shotgun and a radio that plays nothing but metal.

Carol Furlong: I haven’t given those options much thought lately but there is something wild and free about riding down a highway on a Harley Davidson.

Greg Smith: Never had a car, I just would like a car! 

Don’t care what but ideally indigo or orange. 

If it gets me from points A-B that’s all that matters, I walk to areas close but having a car for long drives would be lovely grand!

Lorne Loder: I have already made that decision as I am a motorcycle owner. My motorcycle is not loud and has a stock (factory) exhaust system that emits very low decibel levels. I have never been told my motorcycle is too loud by anyone, ever.

This is clearly a matter of a lack of respect for others and not a matter of safety, as some will tell you. Loud pipes do not ‘save lives’, there is no evidence to support this. Brightly coloured safety vests however, have been proven to save lives, and those that make the claim, “loud pipes save lives” are never seen wearing brightly coloured safety vests.

Wallace Ryan: I would choose an electric bike over anything gasoline powered. With climate change threatening the future of our grandchildren, I think people need to rethink their choice of hobbies. We need to think  and act more responsibly.

Greg Noseworthy: I’m not a car or bike person, but if I had absolutely no choice but to choose it would be a burgundy Dodge Charger (’69). I’d like to specify that my muffler and exhaust would be in check with regulations though!

Shawn Skinner: Neither. I am a user of low cost, reliable transportation year round.

Photo by The Ride Academy on Unsplash.

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