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What isn't new with California exhaust laws for January 2019

  • Posted: 01-15-2019 11:52 AM
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Amid the chatter about the "new" exhaust law in California "cracking down on aftermarket mufflers," there lies one stark falsehood – very little is actually new.

As a California native and enthusiastic California Honda driver since 1994, I can tell you that the 95 decibel limit has been in place as long as I can remember. Through the rise of Honda tuning in the late 90's, we've been getting tickets for exhaust modifications and for being too low. It has been in place through my tenure with Magnaflow exhaust in 2000 and 2001, where we tried to make sure that exhausts were designed around the 95 decibel limit. And as long as I can remember, the famous California racetrack at Laguna Seca in Monterey has had a regular low-limit around-about 92 decibels, with rare exceptions being made for special events throughout the year when money exceeds the need of the limit.

As a youth with a tuned 1990 Integra GS Sedan and MrsHeeltoe with her 1996 Integra GS-R, and my various first generation CRXs, and even an awesome Turbo 1995 CX mini-me hatchback we shared; I am familiar with hyper short-shifting as I drove in my rear-view mirror, sweat beading on my brow, just waiting for the blue-and-reds to flash on that ominously familiar Crown-Vic that just jumped three lanes to get behind me.

I've gotten my fair share of tickets as well, including a few for loud exhaust.

Well—"modified" exhaust, in fact. Since they couldn't give me a ticket for "loud" when the ticket was really for "shiny." In the late 90s and early 2000s, there was a push for documentation to be provided with exhaust systems that drivers could produce when being cited for a modified exhaust that was supposed to serve as evidence that such exhaust was legal.

Shadows of this longstanding situation are still in place today on Tanabe-USA's website, as their Medalion Touring exhaust page, where they clearly promise the exhaust was "built to be under 93db when used as a factory replacement exhaust." The innovative Noir Muffler systems from A'pexi which capitalized on the fact that many tuners from the day liked to rattle-can their rear boxes with barbeque paint.

Greddy was one of the brands I remember who provided such paperwork with exhausts stating at which decibel the exhaust was built-to in development. The document in the kit was supposed to serve as a "get out of a ticket" paper.

It really didn't work too well as I will explain, and it has to do with roadside testing.

Elsewhere within the vehicle code where the rules for testing of exhaust systems are pushed to the California CHP who created sound testing standards for new-vehicle manufacturers but provided no provision for testing on the side of the road. Outraged drivers and motorcyclists getting tickets for noisy exhausts complained to the CHP, who issued a bulletin on the matter, and you will not be shocked to read it. Credit given to for curating this bulletin online where you can read it below, and be sure to read the attachments as well:

The most important statement within is the CHP clearly acknowledges that "…determination of excessive noise is subjective. For this reason, enforcement personnel are to exercise sound professional judgment in making a determination of violation."

Paper or no paper, BAR certification or no BAR certification; if a cop hears your car and thinks it is too loud, you are getting a ticket, son. Keep a dB meter in your car if you want. Your uncertified, uncalibrated, unapproved device won't prove to a cop your exhaust is under 95 dB (besides, just try getting a reasonable recording on the side of the typical California highway).

That is how things have been, dating back to the late 90s. None of that is new, and none of that has changed.

So what is all the noise about, today? What changed in California this year is that the fix-it option for the noisy fart-can on your Honda is going to get you a fine, when before there was a way out because noisy exhaust is was a fix-it ticket.

Today, Greddy provides clarity in their own blog, as they reference a SEMA release on the matter:

Highlight in the article is the following text:

"Under existing law, exhaust systems installed on motor vehicles with a manufacturer’s gross vehicle weight rating of less than 6,000 pounds, other than motorcycles, may not exceed a sound level of 95-decibels when tested under Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) test procedure J1169 (May 1998). This was not changed by A.B. 1824.

A.B. 1824 amended how excess exhaust noise violations are handled by law enforcement. Beginning this year, a vehicle cited for violating the current exhaust noise law will no longer receive what is known as a “fix-it” ticket. Instead, violations will result in an immediate fine."

The only thing the law changed is that the exhaust violation is no longer a "fix-it" ticket. A fix-it ticket is a citation given to you because something is wrong with your car that needs to be fixed. It could be having tint on the front windows, missing a front license plate, or having bald tires. The state would allow you to fix the violation before the court-date on the ticket and bring the car to a local police station to have the car inspected by a police officer to certify the fix by signing the back of the ticket. With the ticket "signed-off" you could go to the court and pay a small-ish fee for getting the ticket resolved.

In a the afore-mentioned Turbo CX Hatch I had, I used to drive like a bit of a maniac. That car was a blast! I got nailed in it one day, and by some grace of God I was "let off" a speeding ticket with an exhaust ticket (that's right…a fix-it ticket oftentimes comes as a means of giving a "warning" in California). To fix it I opened one of the flanges and stuffed a bunch of steel-wool in the pipe to quiet the exhaust and put a screen between the flange to keep it from blowing out. With my stuffed-up engine, I limped to the local police station had an officer listen to my car and sign off my completely stock-sounding exhaust. After which time I removed the steel wool and paid the fee.

In California it was either fix it or pay a fine. Fixing the repair meant you didn't need to pay the fine. And paying the fine always kept you open to getting another ticket. Now, paying the fine is mandatory. No fix-it option. And repeated offenses are very probably for some of the more stubborn of you.

It's upsetting that this issue is making so much of an impact on car enthusiasts when this is really little in the scheme of things. I mean, local news stations aren't even making a point to mention it in their press-releases.

Is it a big deal? I feel it is. And this is mostly because of the loosie-goosy nature of the citations to begin with. Examining the reasons for this mandatory fine are an exercise in futility as it honestly seems like a means for California to collect more money.

In other words, nothing is really new, here.

What is the catalyst for this? Are our cars really so noisy to warrant such fines? Admittedly I haven't researched it so I canb only speculate. Maybe the cars are too noisy, what with the latest culture that finds it cool to drag a car across the road leaving bits and pieces wedged into every speed-bump. Speaking of which, I wonder when it will be that the police start cracking down on the real nuisance of the road, which is the car that is way too low to be practically driven on the street. There is an effective roadside test for that, called a tape-measure, that isn't subjective at all.

Here is a last article that should give some final clarity on a few important questions that I've been asked:

Cliffs notes: No, you cannot get a BAR certificate proactively to avoid a ticket, and no you won't be out $1000 necessarily just by getting an exhaust ticket.

Happy motoring, all!

About the Author

Marcus di Sabella Marcus is the founder of Heeltoe Automotive. He's been working with cars (mostly Honda cars) since 1996, and has been providing enthusiasts with excellent products, services, and web experiences since 2002. He's been published in Honda Tuning, and holds a degree in Engineering Technology.


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