Muffled Frustrations

Facing calls to crack down on loud cars, City Council considers ratcheting up fines under Santa Fe’s traffic code

Sergio Perez replaced the normal exhaust pipe on his 2014 Cadillac with a Flowmaster and, yes, the new device makes the car “a little noisier.”

But he says the reason is simple.

“It’s just to make the car seem like it’s faster,” says Perez, 20. After all, he adds: “Every young man like me wants to have a nice ride.”

But Perez could soon face a hefty fine if his car is too loud as city councilors target the sort of aftermarket modifications that some business owners and residents complain have brought too much noise to Santa Fe’s streets.

The city’s traffic laws already require that every vehicle have a muffler in good working order to prevent “excessive or unusual noise.” The ordinance also bans muffler bypasses, cutouts and similar devices.

Councilors are set to soon consider a proposal to ratchet up the fine for violating that ordinance from $25 to at least $250. Residents and business owners campaigning to boost the fine argue the current penalty doesn’t deter drivers blasting through Santa Fe’s streets.

Still, with younger motorists receiving the vast majority of tickets under the existing law, some councilors question whether a police crackdown on youths is the right solution, illustrating a divide between downtown business owners among the most vocal proponents of raising the fine and segments of a car culture with deep roots in Northern New Mexico.

The Santa Fe Police Department has ramped up enforcement of the existing muffler ordinance in recent years. After issuing just one citation in 2019, 57 in 2020 and 36 so far this year.

However, Deputy Police Chief Matthew Champlin told the Public Works and Utilities Committee on Nov. 7 that the penalty can be much less expensive than the cost of fixing a noisy car.

“A $25 citation would be much less than the amount of money they invested in their car or it would cost much more to install something that’s proper,” he said.

District 1 Councilor Signe Lindell, along with District 4 Councilor Amanda Chavez and Mayor Alan Webber, are proposing to raise the fine to $250 to $500 for a first offense and $500 for subsequent offenses. That would be in line with similar policies in Albuquerque, where penalties for noisy vehicles start at $500 and can include 90 days in jail. And authorities can seize vehicles after a third offense. While the Santa Fe proposal would not include jail time, drivers cited under the ordinance could still land behind bars if they miss court. But drivers could avoid the fine by fixing their vehicles. The proposal would also fine mechanics and dealers for selling or installing devices that violate the ordinance.

And under an amendment from Councilors Carol Romero-Wirth of District 2 and Jamie Cassutt of District 4, using a factory-installed exhaust option that boosts noise—now included in some vehicles—would also be prohibited.

Residents and downtown business owners who argue that loud vehicles have become a nuisance rattling the city have been pushing for stricter penalties.

“I love being in downtown Santa Fe 99% of the time,” Rik Blyth, vice president and general manager of La Fonda on the Plaza, told the committee.

The other 1% of the time, Blyth gets calls from guests overlooking San Francisco Street complaining that traffic below is too loud, he said.

“We have to move them out of those rooms because they can’t sleep,” Blyth said.

Meanwhile, a petition to “stop aggressive driving Santa Fe” has gathered more than 1,400 signatures calling on the city to address muffler noise.

Webber and the full City Council could take up the proposal as soon as mid-December after the Finance Committee voted 3-2 to advance it Nov. 30.

Other councilors raised concerns that, overwhelmingly, those cited are between 15 and 31, according to SFPD.

“I have a hard time with anything that targets a group like that,” District 3 Councilor Chris Rivera tells SFR.

He voted against the proposal in the Public Works and Utilities Committee earlier this month and voted against it again in the Finance Committee on Monday night, along with Councilor Renee Villarreal of District 1.

While much of the city’s enforcement has been on Airport Road in Rivera’s district, he tells SFR many loud vehicle complaints come from elsewhere in the city.

“I have had some complaints about noise on Airport Road but I think that’s mostly with speed,” he tells SFR.

Perez calls the proposal ridiculous. But the Cadillac owner says he can see both sides of the issue.

“If it’s going to be a $250 fine, not a lot of people are going to want loud cars,” he says, adding: “I know some people that probably wouldn’t give a damn.”

Editor’s note: A graphic published with an early version of this story has been removed due to an error.

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