For the first 16 years, Fred Tilker's life on Paseo del Prado, Spanish for "meadow path," was as tranquil as the name implies.
But in recent years, the volume of pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles on the residential street in Yorba Linda, Calif., has grown sharply. Noise blasts through the walls and windows of Tilker's ranch-style house.
"When the really loud ones go by, they rattle my wife's china and we have to stop talking," said Tilker, 65, a retired engineer.
His complaint to the local police chief elicited a polite letter explaining that noise was a low priority. Tilker considered moving, but his wife, Ingrid, talked him out of it. Now he is thinking about spending $17,000 on double-paned windows and joining a legion of other Americans in the pursuit of quiet.
Traffic noise is growing sharply in communities across the United States -- wealthy, poor, urban, rural. The volume of vehicles, particularly heavy big rigs, has climbed steeply over the past decade. And people are driving faster, which further amps up the noise.
Pickups and SUVs, which are significantly louder than cars, are proliferating on residential streets. As well, more vehicles of all types are being equipped with noisy high-performance exhausts and powerful stereo systems.
Activists say the rising din is no mere annoyance. Even at levels well below those that damage hearing, noise can increase blood pressure, fatigue and stress, medical studies show. Researchers have found that traffic noise near schools interferes with learning.
As the racket grows, people with no escape acquire a sense of hopelessness. In a 1999 Census Bureau report, Americans cited noise as their most serious complaint about their neighborhoods, surpassing even crime and concerns about public schools. Nationally, noise is the leading reason people want to move.
"They call laws that govern noise nuisance laws," said Thom de Stefano, a freelance writer in Toronto who is a co-founder of Quiet Please United, which pushes for tougher laws on vehicle noise. "That's a monstrous understatement, like calling kidnapping a petty offense."
A 1999 federal housing survey in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area found that occupants of 220,000 homes were so troubled by traffic noise that they wanted to move. People in more than 1 million households noted the presence of noise in their communities, and occupants of more than half a million homes found it "bothersome," the survey showed.
For many, moving is an unattainable dream, particularly for low-income people in the noisiest locations.
Over a deafening roar from heavy trucks on the Long Beach Freeway just 30 feet away, Lewis Failes said he would leave his mobile home if he could afford to.
Every few seconds, big rigs pass over bumps or dips in the road, jostling their 8,000-pound steel shipping containers and creating noises that sound like small explosions.
"The ground shakes underneath my home," Failes, a retired draftsman, shouted on his front porch one recent morning. "It goes on all day and all night. I try to listen to music, but the vibrations make my CD player skip. I can't hear it anyway.
"It seems to get worse every day."
As communities run short of empty land, more housing is being built alongside major highways, a trend evident in fast-growing cities such as Las Vegas and Houston.
"Urban America is getting noisier," said Jack Freytag, director of Charles M. Salter Associates Inc., a San Francisco-based acoustics consulting firm. But in terms of remedies, he said, the problem "has been on the back burner because local communities can't get it together technically to understand the problem."
Policymakers in Europe and Asia long ago woke up to noise as a public health problem.
European and Asian nations, as well as the World Health Organization, have set goals for sharply reducing noise from all sources and tightening restrictions on motor vehicles in the next few years. Japan will force its automakers to reduce car noise by more than 50 percent by equipping vehicles with quieter tires and exhaust systems.
The United States has no national noise policy. States and localities are left to devise their own standards. The Environmental Protection Agency was empowered in the early 1970s to set federal noise rules on everything from lawn mowers to cars. But President Ronald Reagan canceled funding for the program in 1982 and shut the EPA's Office of Noise Abatement.
Economic growth is one cause of the noise boom. Americans are driving 27 percent more miles than they were a decade ago, extending the hours of peak noise.
What is more, traffic is audible across a wider swath of territory along major roads. Big rigs are key contributors, particularly in national transportation hubs such as Southern California. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that 7.9 million large trucks were registered in 2002, 31 percent more than a decade earlier.
Pickups, large SUVs and other light trucks, which now account for half of all new vehicles sold in the United States, produce twice as much noise as cars, even at relatively low speeds, according to acoustics experts and auto industry representatives.
A car traveling at 35 mph generates noise at about 65 decibels, measured at the side of the road. Pickups and SUVs put out 75 decibels, a doubling of the sound level. A vacuum cleaner, by comparison, produces about 70 decibels.
Car manufacturers are tuning exhaust systems in many models to produce more noise in a narrow band of low frequencies. They say car buyers like the distinctive sound. But the tuning can make the exhaust seem louder and the sound waves penetrate walls more easily, said Freytag.
Higher speeds also increase tire, engine and exhaust noise, as well as aerodynamic noise, the sound generated by air flowing around a moving vehicle. Congress repealed the national 55-mph speed limit in 1995, and states promptly raised freeway speed limits.
Among the most politically contentious noise issues is the growing popularity of high-performance exhaust systems, which account for more than $100 million in annual sales, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a trade group based in Diamond Bar, Calif. The modified systems are typically installed by car owners or custom muffler shops.
In recent years, SEMA has successfully sponsored legislation across the nation that has limited the ability of police officers to write tickets for excessive noise.
In 1959, the California Vehicle Code made it illegal to modify an exhaust system to produce more noise than the equipment supplied with the vehicle. Many states went further, outlawing any tampering with exhaust systems.
Now, custom exhaust systems are legal in California as long as they do not generate more than 95 decibels, measured 20 inches from the tailpipe with the engine revved. That is about the same racket produced by a gasoline-powered lawn mower.
Mufflers supplied with new cars typically generate about 75 decibels.
Under the SEMA-sponsored California law, motorists ticketed for excessive noise can have their cars' exhaust systems tested at certain smog check stations. If the sound level registers 95 decibels or lower, the system is certified as legal.
SEMA has persuaded other states to adopt similar legislation. Steve McDonald, the trade group's director of legislative affairs, said many police officers had been writing tickets based on their own mistaken judgment of what sounds too loud. But McDonald acknowledged that most modified exhaust systems are louder than the original equipment.
"What I find disturbing is that these companies promote incivility," said Les Blomberg, founder of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier, Vt.
Blomberg works full time at his cause, maintains an office with a few staff members, and seeks to raise public recognition of noise as a social and environmental problem.
Moderate but long-term noise -- generally over 60 decibels -- damages the health of children and possibly adults, causing elevated blood pressure, coronary disease, peptic ulcers and higher levels of stress hormones, studies have shown.
Studies in Austria found that schoolchildren exposed to an average noise level greater than 50 decibels learned far more slowly than children in communities with noise below 40 decibels, said Gary W. Evans, a professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University who helped conduct the research.
"What we have found is that even if noise is not loud enough to damage hearing, it can affect speech recognition," Evans said. "When children live in a noisy environment, they learn to tune out the noise. But they also tune out speech and they fall behind."
After a long battle, the American National Standards Institute last year issued tough new acoustic standards for schools, recommending that future classrooms have an ambient noise level of 35 decibels. That's similar to the noise level in a library. The standards are purely voluntary.
Many Southern California homeowners have been living with the freeway din for years and vainly hoping for solutions.
Private spending on special acoustic windows, sound-absorbing panels and similar products is growing. Quiet Solution Inc., a Silicon Valley company, makes sound-absorbing drywall that costs about $100 a sheet, compared with about $5 for standard drywall. Despite the cost, sales are doubling every quarter, said chief executive Marc Porat.
Pressure from foreign countries on the auto industry could help curb the decibel level in the United States, said Tim Jackson, senior vice president of global technology for Tenneco Automotive's Walker brand of exhaust systems.
"You can already see examples where European and Japanese influence is becoming mainstream in our design of vehicles for North America," Jackson said. "The vehicles coming off the showroom floors today are clearly quieter than their predecessors of 10 years ago."
At his Yorba Linda home, Fred Tilker worries that it will be a long time before he gets any relief. His street climbs uphill and has a posted speed limit of 40 mph. Pickups and SUVs downshift just as they pass his front door. On a recent evening, the din reverberated through the house.
"It keeps getting worse every month," he said.