On a typical weekend, Calgary’s 17th Avenue is busy with shoppers and diners bouncing between a string of shops, restaurants and bars in the city’s inner-city Beltline neighbourhood.
But this is a scene that is often pierced by the sounds of revving engines – from motorcycles, sports cars and modified vehicles. Some of them are simply passing through the neighbourhood. But for others, showing off along a strip nicknamed the Red Mile for its proximity to the Calgary Flames home of the Saddledome is the point, particularly on warm summer nights but also during relatively balmy chinooks in the dead of winter.
Peter Oliver, a board member with the Beltline Neighbourhoods Association, said the frequent noise has disrupted life for residents and visitors.
“It’s just kind of like an escalating competition to out-noise-make the next car in the same way trucks have lift-kits and the trucks keep getting bigger and bigger,” he said.
“So it’s sort of this spiral of escalating noise.”
Calgary isn’t alone in this either. According to an e-mail from the Edmonton Police Service, Alberta’s capital city has several hot spots for excessive vehicle noise. These include the underpass near the Alberta Legislature and Whyte Avenue, which is lined by many shops and restaurants and surrounded by residential areas.
There is a renewed interest in both cities to crack down on excessive vehicle noise. Councillors in Edmonton and Calgary call for more to be done on excessive vehicle noise, including by giving peace officers more power to enforce existing rules, increasing fines and adopting technology that has been compared to photo radar but for sound.
Municipalities in Alberta can hand out tickets for vehicle noise through different pieces of legislation, including provincial laws. The province’s Traffic Safety Act has laws against vehicles and their mufflers making too much noise, loud and disruptive late-night driving in residential areas and stunting laws. Most carry fines of more than $100, except the stunting law, which carries a fine of $402 and three demerit points.
Calgary Police Service handed out 190 tickets related to vehicle noise last year, according to department figures from mid-December, and 207 tickets the year before. While they can issue tickets for the provincial laws, City of Calgary bylaw officers are unable to do so. However, that could change this year.
Calgary Ward 8 Councillor Courtney Walcott, whose ward includes the Beltline neighbourhood, has been pushing for stricter enforcement of vehicle noise laws.
He recalls how some parts of the Beltline neighbourhood, such as 17th Avenue, would get vehicle noise almost every night, sometimes at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. During the summer, patio-goers would hear it every 20 minutes or so, he said.
Before becoming a councillor, he was a teacher at Western Canada High School, located in the Beltline along 17th Avenue, where loud vehicles would disrupt his class. “It would shake the windows,” he said.
Mr. Walcott recently put forward the notice of motion to council that could give peace officers the power to enforce the provincial traffic laws, including provisions related to vehicle noise.
Giving peace officers this power could help reduce noise, and free up police officers to handle other traffic violations, Mr. Walcott said.
According to Mr. Oliver of the neighbourhoods association, there are other ways the city could quiet down its streets beyond enforcement, such as making areas more open to pedestrians and less focused on car traffic. He said this could include closing off major streets to vehicle traffic on specific dates or by allowing restaurants and cafés to use nearby curb lanes to create patios.
“Open that space up for people as opposed to cars,” he said.
In Edmonton, the city’s police department and bylaw officers are both part of Project Tensor, a program designed to increase enforcement of traffic violations including speeding and noise. Both police officers and city bylaw officers in Edmonton can enforce the provincial rules.
Edmonton also has an additional enforcement measure. Both the police and city bylaw officers can charge motorcyclists – but not car or truck drivers – for excessive noise under municipal rules. According to an e-mail from the police service, in 2021 officers working with Project Tensor issued 36 and 38 tickets for motorcycles exceeding 92 and 96 decibels while idling, respectively.
But Constable Clint Stallknecht, with EPS’s traffic safety unit, said excessive noise from four-wheeled vehicles is a larger problem. Edmonton officers issued 78 tickets for mufflers producing excessive noise, sparks or flames in 2021. They also issued 29 tickets for unnecessary vehicle noise and 33 tickets for widened mufflers that year.
Const. Stallknecht said Edmonton should expand its motorcycle noise bylaws to include cars and trucks. He added that establishing set decibel limits for all vehicles could reduce some ambiguity surrounding the laws.
Sergeant Neil Roulston, a bylaw enforcement officer with the City of Edmonton, said there are some benefits for using the provincial law, which doesn’t have strict decibel limits. That allows the officer to “actually form an opinion” on whether a driver was loud enough to get a ticket. “There’s a lot of latitude here,” he said.
Edmonton Councillor Michael Janz, whose ward of Papastew includes Whyte Avenue, is pushing for the city to take more action. He recently put forward a recommendation to city council to create a new bylaw that would set the fine for excessively noisy passenger vehicles at $1,000 for a first offence.
The councillor has also suggested spending an additional $1.6-million a year to pay for more bylaw officers enforcing vehicle noise rules, potentially by creating two teams of five specialized officers.
Mr. Janz said he’d also like to see the city follow other jurisdictions in using technology to address the issue, such as devices that can record a noisy vehicle and take a photo of its licence plate.
For instance, the City of Edmonton had a pilot project using technology to enforce vehicle noise laws in 2018. Mr. Janz noted that it failed because the systems didn’t issue tickets. Rather, they showed how many decibels nearby vehicles produced, egging on some drivers.
Mr. Janz added that some cities have successfully used technology in this way. For example, Paris pioneered a system made up of a series of sensors on lampposts that can triangulate where a sound originates from, reducing a noisy driver’s ability to pass the buck to another car.
The cities would also require the province’s permission to use such devices. Mr. Janz said Edmonton has petitioned the province to allow the sensors.
Kevin Lee, spokesperson with Alberta’s Ministry of Transportation and Economic Corridors, said in an e-mail that both Edmonton and Calgary had previously made requests. The province is also “currently reviewing” a request from Edmonton to use the technology, the e-mail said.
Mr. Janz said he believes rowdy drivers are a small portion of the population engaging in “anti-social behaviour that is terrorizing” the rest of the community. He added that this has been a long-term issue in Edmonton, and it has only become worse over the years.
“It’s like if there was one guy on your block who wanted to play the bagpipes at two in the morning, marching up and down the block,” Mr. Janz said. “Everybody’s just fed up.”