Is It Legal To Drive A Car With A Loud Exhaust System?
In the United States, it’s almost universally true that your car must have a muffler to be street legal. What’s more, every state and most cities/local authorities have rules prohibiting quote “loud” exhaust systems.
As a result, almost every car legally available for sale comes equipped with some sort of street-legal system. However, if you’ve decided to boost your car’s performance with an after-market exhaust system (and if you have, good work!), then you may be concerned that your exhaust system is too loud to be street legal.
Muffler & Exhaust System Sound Laws – No Standards For Maximum Noise
Unfortunately, there is no national law that vehicle owners and exhaust manufacturers can reference to make sure their systems aren’t too loud. Instead, every vehicle owner or exhaust system installer must know their local laws. In some states, such as California, the maximum sound level limit for vehicle exhausts is 95 decibels when measured next to the vehicle. In Kansas, state muffler laws require vehicle exhaust noise to be less than 90 decibels when measured from 50 feet away. Considering that sound loses power the further it travels, the 50 foot rule in Kansas means exhaust systems can be louder in that state than they can be in California. The state of Texas has no vehicle noise laws, meaning that cars and trucks can be even louder in Texas than they can in Kansas.
Of course, local communities can set their own rules that restrict sound levels even further. In New York City, drivers can be given a ticket if their car’s exhaust system is “plainly audible” from 150 feet away. In Mankato, MN, the maximum allowable exhaust sound limit is 86db, and many cities have adopted quiet rules that prohibit any loud exhaust system from operating between 11pm and 6am. Since there are no universal standards, it’s important that you learn the local laws for yourself.
It’s also important to recognize that the only way to measure sound levels is with a calibrated decibel meter…which is something most police cars don’t come equipped with. If you ever get a ticket for an overly loud exhaust system, you may be able to challenge it in court if the officer who ticketed you didn’t use a calibrated meter.
Standard Exhaust System Laws
While there are no standards for noise levels, there are some standard laws that apply to all cars in all states and localities:
- It’s illegal to try and modify your existing muffler to make your car louder. This law is on the books to prevent people from creating an exhaust leak, because exhaust leaks can be very dangerous.
- It’s illegal to drive a car that doesn’t have some kind of muffler. Open pipes are illegal anywhere you go.
- It’s illegal to remove the catalytic converter. Some people are under the impression that catalytic converters restrict exhaust flow, but they really don’t…especially newer models and/or catalytic converters designed for performance.
- It’s illegal to route your exhaust system through your vehicle’s passenger compartment.
- Backfires are illegal under any circumstance, and you can be ticketed if your car has a mechanical problem that causes frequent engine backfires.
What To Do If You’re Driving with a Loud Muffler
Since the law may vary from one community to another, and since enforcement of these laws is uneven, the best advice is:
- Drive as quietly as you can. Blipping the throttle at a red light is fun, but it’s noisy and likely to attract the attention of law enforcement. Same thing goes for WOT (wide open throttle) acceleration.
- Drive quietly late at night or early in the morning. If your car or truck has a loud exhaust system, a good way to avoid a ticket is to take it easy during the hours that most people sleep. Otherwise, you’re going to wake someone up and they’re going to call the cops and complain.
- Get with your local muffler shop and find out about swapping out your mufflers for something a little quieter. If that’s not an option, consider adding a removable muffler to the end of your vehicle’s tailpipe(s).
If you are pulled over for having a loud exhaust system, be sure to ask the officer if they had a chance to measure the decibels. If they didn’t use a sound meter, you may be able to ask them how they’re sure your system is too loud…as politely as possible, of course.