Editor's Note: Longtime contributor Chris Werner not only knows a thing or two about turning wrenches on late-model GMs, he is also an attorney at law. A member of the bars of New Jersey and New York, his specialties include automotive lemon and warranty law, and he also assists clients in dealing with raffic tickets. If you find yourself in need of legal assistance, check out www.chriswerneresq.com for more information on his practice.
Last time, attorney Chris Werner deciphered the exhaust noise and nitrous laws in four of the biggest ten states for GMHTP readers-California, Florida, Illinois, and Maryland. This month he'll finish with Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
Important disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Our purpose here is to highlight applicable laws and provide brief, inconclusive opinions as to what they may mean, as appropriate-it's a starting point, and the rest is up to you. The confusing array of legislation in any given state can be cumbersome, so we're quoting the important parts of various statutes, rules, or regulations and leaving it up to the reader to look up the full text and draw his or her own conclusions. Remember, he body of law that can affect ourhobby is fluid and can change at any time, and is also subject to anyone's interpretation-whether by your state legislature, a town judge, or a police officer on the side of the road. (That's why the SEMA Action Network is working to get better-drafted, less subjective laws on the books-see our sidebar for more information.) If faced with a traffic summons, you are advised to consult an attorney in your state, as only when an attorney-client relationship has been created can you be advised as to the best course of action for you!
Michigan Compiled Laws 257.707 requires the use of "a muffler in good working order and in constant operation to prevent excessive or unusual noise and annoying smoke," and states that "[a] motor vehicle shall at all times be equipped with a properly operating exhaust system which shall include a tailpipe and resonator on a vehicle where the original design included a tailpipe and resonator." Michigan Compiled Laws 257.707b states basically the same thing, adding that "[a] motor vehicle, while being operated on a highway street, shall be equipped ... to prevent noise in excess of the limits established in this act."
But just what this "excess" noise means is not well defined. Michigan Compiled Laws 257.707c proscribes the use of vehicles on public roads that exceed certain decibel limits, but, as in Illinois, the sound limit is an in-motion measurement inclusive of other sound like tire noise, not just that coming from the exhaust. However, it goes on to state that "[a] person shall not operate a vehicle on a highway or street if the vehicle ... is not equipped with a muffler or other noise dissipative device, or is equipped with a cutout, bypass, amplifier, or a similar device." Further, no one may "sell, install, or replace a muffler or exhaust part that causes the motor vehicle to which the muf- fler or exhaust part is attached to exceed the noise limits established by this act or a rule promulgated under this act," and "[a] person shall not modify, repair, replace, or remove a part of an exhaust system causing the motor vehicle to which the system is attached to produce noise in excess of the levels established by this act, or operate a motor vehicle so altered on a street or highway." The statute also states that used car dealerships are forbidden from selling cars not in compliance with the above, and Michigan Compiled Laws 257.707d states that doing so is prima facie evidence of a fraudulent act (and also provides penalties for the other infractions above).
This all sounds pretty severe, but a careful read of the wording reveals that enthusiasts may still be protected by there being no actual decibel limit in existence for pure exhaust noise in Michigan. In fact, back in 2006 SEMA helped defeat proposed legislation that would have imposed an 80- decibel limit to exhaust noise and also ban vehicles equipped with replacement exhaust systems that differed from the design specifications of the original muffler.
Michigan Compiled Laws 752.272a makes it unlawful to sell or distribute nitrous oxide (or devices for dispensing it) "for the purpose of causing a condition of intoxication, euphoria, excitement, exhilaration, stupefaction, or dulling of the senses or nervous system." Although the "excitement" and "exhilaration" language seems fairly ironic in light of the goals of using nitrous on a vehicle, the intent of the legislature was probably only to prevent actual inhaling of the substance itself. Further, the statute "does not apply to nitrous oxide that has been denatured or otherwise rendered unfit for human consumption," which seems to account for the addition of sulphur dioxide fairly well. First offenders are subject to imprisonment for up to 93 days and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
New Jersey Statutes Annotated 39:3-70 provides: "Every motor vehicle having a combustion motor shall at all times be equipped with a muffler in good working order and in constant operation to prevent excessive or unusual noise and annoying smoke, and no person shall use a muffler cut-out, bypass or similar device upon a motor vehicle on a highway," which is pretty much the boilerplate language used in most other states we're looking at here.
New Jersey Administrative Code 13:20-32.20 describes the standards to be used at official inspection facilities. Aside from stating that improperly mounted exhaust systems and systems that pass through, or hat can send gas into, the passenger compartment (which presumably applies to those that end before the rear axle) are no good, systems where "the muffler is missing, defective, or not in proper operating condition" and those with "a muffler cut-out, muffler bypass or any similar device, or any change or modification to the exhaust system which causes excessive noise" will be refused.
In other words, we weren't able to find anything on decibel limits in New Jersey, save to say that SEMA helped strike down a measure a few years back that would have instituted a noise restriction for all aftermarket mufflers sold in the state, because it was vague and stated no actual decibel limit.
New Jersey Statutes Annotated 24:6G-1 disallows persons except "a duly licensed physician, dentist, veterinarian, nurse, hospital, sanitarium or other medical institution ... to have under control or possess nitrous oxide in any form unless the person obtains a written permit issued by the Department of Health." That person must be at least 19 years old before he or she can get such a permit, but this author can tell you that they are relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain. Though the law on possession is clear, we unfortunately were unable to find laws on point regarding actual nitrous systems on vehicles, so you should probably assume the usual applies (i.e., disconnecting or removing the bottle while on the street).
New York Consolidated Laws, Chapter 71 (Vehicle & Traf- fic), 375, states that: "Every motor vehicle, operated or driven upon the highways of the state, shall at all times be equipped with an adequate muf- fler and exhaust system in constant operation and properly maintained to prevent any excessive or unusual noise and no such muffler or exhaust system shall be equipped with a cut-out, bypass, or similar device. No person shall modify the muffler or exhaust system of a motor vehicle in a manner which will amplify or increase the noise emitted by the motor or exhaust system of such vehicle above that emitted by the muffler or exhaust system originally installed on the vehicle and such original muffler and exhaust system shall comply with all the requirements of this section." These run-on sentences are all fairly self-explanatory, and pretty restrictive at that.
New York Consolidated Laws, Chapter 45 (Public Health), 3380, provides that "[n]o person shall use nitrous oxide for purposes of causing intoxication, inebriation, excitement, stupefaction or the dulling of the brain or nervous system of himself or another." Further, "[n]o person shall sell any canister or other container of nitrous oxide unless granted an exemption pursuant to this subdivision. n no event shall any canisteror other container of nitrous oxide be sold to a person under the age of twenty-one years." We weren't able to find anything on point regarding use of nitrous oxide systems, so besides checking into the existence of nitrous permits, here again you should assume your bottle must be disconnected or removed while on the street.
Ohio Revised Code 4513.22 states: "Every motor vehicle ... with an internal combustion engine shall at all times be equipped with a muffler which is in good working order and in constant operation to prevent excessive or unusual noise, and no person shall use a muffler cutout, by-pass, or similar device upon a motor vehicle on a highway."
Similarly, Ohio Administrative Code 4501:2-1-14 states, "[n]o motor vehicle ... shall be equipped with an exhaust system which would produce any excessive, and/or unusual noise." Also, "[e]very motor vehicle shall at all times be equipped with a standard muffler for said type of vehicle or one that meets all of the above requirements." The requirements are that stated and essentially those of 4513.22, Ohio Revised Code.
Finally, Ohio Revised Code 4513.221 provides that "[t]he board of county commissioners of any county, and the board of township trustees of any township subject to section 505.17 of the Revised Code, may regulate passenger car and motorcycle noise on streets and highways under their jurisdiction. Such regulations shall include maximum permissible noise limits measured in decibels, subject to the requirements of this section." Decibel limits are then set out that involve total noise of the car while in motion, not just exhaust noise. Fortunately, the law includes reference to SAE practices, though not the SAE J1169 set out in the SEMA model legislation (presumably because it doesn't involve cars in motion). So though it seems that this section grants a lot of authority to localities to restrict vehicular noise on their roadways, there is a bit of salvation in that it also states: "No regulation ... shall be effective until signs giving notice of the regulation are posted upon or at the entrance to the highway or part thereof affected, as may be most appropriate."
Ohio Revised Code 2925.31-42 relates to harmful intoxicants and their controlled distribution, and nitrous oxide is classified as such. Most of the wording regarding nitrous has to do with cartridges of it only being approved for use in a food preparation setting, though it may be important for our purposes that it states they cannot be distributed to anyone under 21 years of age. One could presume this also means nitrous can't be distributed in any form (including bottled) to persons under 21.
A subsequent section of the code is more specific with regard to nitrous and motor vehicles. According to Ohio Revised Code 2925.33, "Possessing nitrous oxide in motor vehicle," states that "no person shall possess an open cartridge of nitrous oxide ... [w]hile operating or being a passenger passenger in or on a motor vehicle on a street, highway, or other public or private property open to the public for purposes of vehicular traffic or parking," or "[w]hile being in or on a stationary motor vehicle" in such a situation. Violators are guilty of possessing nitrous oxide in a motor vehicle, which is a misdemeanor of the fourth degree. While exceptions are given for dentists, pharmacists, emergency medical services, veterinarians, and physicians, none is given for the general public or for use as an automobile engine additive. Presumably, this law is aimed at drug-abusing punks who might inhale nitrous and engage in other mischief whilst in their cars, but its vague wording unfortunately opens it up to applying to nitrous oxide systems as we enthusiasts know them.
Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, itle 75 (Vehicles), 4523, states in subsection (a) that: "Every motor vehicle operated on a highway shall be constructed, equipped, maintained and operated so as not to exceed the sound level for the vehicle as prescribed in regulations promulgated by the department." Further, subsection (c) says "[e]very motor vehicle shall be equipped with a muffler or other effective noise suppressing system in good working order and in constant operation and no muffler or exhaust system shall be equipped with a cutout, bypass or similar device." In addition, subsection (d) states that "[n]o person shall modify the exhaust system of a motor vehicle in a manner which will amplify or increase the noise emitted by the motor of the vehicle above the maximum levels permitted under subsection (a) or violate the provisions of subsection (b)" (where (b) refers to exhaust entering the passenger compartment). Interestingly, it goes on to say, "[h]eaders and side exhausts are permitted provided the vehicle meets all the requirements of this section." The vague wording here makes intent really tough to gauge, and you probably shouldn't take this to say that open headers are legal in Pennsylvania!
You can find basically the same thing in the Pennsylvania Code, Title 67 (Transportation), 175.75, though it adds: "The exhaust system of a vehicle may not be modified in a manner which will amplify or increase noise emitted by the motor of a vehicle above the maximum level permitted by Chapter 157 (relating to established sound levels)." That Chapter does enumerate decibel noise limits; but here again, they are for vehicles in motion, so noise from tires and other sources factor in.
Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, Title 18 (Crimes and Offenses), 7303, relates to the sale or illegal use of certain solvents and noxious substances. Nitrous oxide is defined as falling under the stated category of a noxious substance or substance containing a solvent having the property of releasing toxic vapors or fumes." Sale or possession is a misdemeanor of the third degree, though fortunately, this seems to apply only if one "for the purpose of causing a condition of intoxication, inebriation, excitement, stupefaction, or the dulling of his brain or nervous system, intentionally smell[s] or inhale[s] the fumes," or sells it to someone likely to use it for that purpose. Again, it would seem the legislative intent here was not to prohibit nitrous use in car engines, especially since smelling or inhaling is specifically mentioned. However, Pennsylvania may have a nitrous permit system we don't know about, so you should do some research on this topic too.
Texas Transportation Code 547.604, "Muffler Required," states: "A motor vehicle shall be equipped with a muffler in good working condition that continually operates to prevent excessive or unusual noise." Further, "[a] person may not use a muffler cutout, bypass, or similar device on a motor vehicle." So can you have a cutout on your car, even if it's not being used? Probably not-but it's up to you to argue it! This is about all we found for Texas, though we heard whispers that another statute exists which discusses all the ways the state is not to be "messed with."
Texas Health & Safety Code, Chapter 485, includes nitrous oxide under its list of so-called abusable volatile chemicals, though it states a person commits an offense if one "inhales, ingests, applies, uses, or possesses an abusable volatile chemical with intent to inhale, ingest, apply, or use the chemical in a manner ... contrary to directions for use, cautions, or warnings appearing on a label of a container of the chemical; and ... designed to: (A) affect the person's central nervous system; (B) create or induce a condition of intoxication, hallucination, or elation; or (C) change, distort, or disturb the person's eyesight, thinking process, balance, or coordination." It goes on to state that an offense under this section is a Class B misdemeanor. It would seem from the wording of this provision that use of nitrous in a vehicle's engine does not create a violation, but again, there is still the question of permits in Texas.
Hopefully this story series has helped you learn a little more about your state's laws regarding aftermarket exhaust and nitrous oxide systems. And like we said last time, aside from now having some background information on how you might protect yourself if faced with trouble with the law, you should also keep in mind that knowledge of the law helps you be an informed consumer. Educating yourself as to what parts you can safely install on your car in the first place can surely save the time and headache of legal confrontations. For those states where the state of affairs is pretty harsh, let's all work together to get fair and objectively enforceable laws based off of the SEMA models passed!
Special thanks to Jason Tolleson of SEMA, "Pops" Franco, and to the Bergen County Police Department's Captain Uwe Malakas and Patrolman William Peppard for their assistance with this story series and its photography.
The Sema Action
The SEMA Action Network
The Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) isn't just an organization that puts on a huge trade show in Sin City every year. Many readers probably also know that it is dedicated to lobbying against legislation that will harm the hobby, as well as supporting legislation that will foster it. And SEMA has come up with a great way to keep us informed of issues that enthusiasts may need to get involved in: it's called the SEMA Action Network, or SAN. Its purpose is to disseminate information and to rally support of enthusiasts, car clubs, and members of the auto parts industry, amplifying the overall voice of SEMA to the benefit of all.
Indeed, SEMA's SAN had a hand in getting several of the laws you see quoted in this story series passed, where more restrictive laws had been pending. It is able to accomplish this by providing lawmakers with model language that replaces vague and subjective provisions with fair and enforceable standards. One example would be the SEMA model legislation that establishes an exhaust noise-testing standard based on SAE J1169. Under this model, vehicles are certified to be in compliance with the law if during the test, the highest recorded decibel level is under 95 decibels (using the dBA, or "A-weighted" decibels, standard). This is done with a sound meter placed at a specific orientation 20 inches from the exhaust outlet, the car stationary and in neutral, and the engine operating in a steady-state condition of 3/4 maximum rated engine speed. "While this does not take away from law enforcement's ability to cite for loud exhaust systems, it does allow individuals a method of proving that their vehicles meet the 95 decibel standard," says SAN director Jason Tolleson.
In regards to nitrous oxide, SEMA has also written model legislation that allows vehicles to be equipped with nitrous systems, so long as the bottle is disconnected or removed while the vehicle is operated on a public roadway. This is exactly what SEMA helped do in recent years with states like Arkansas and Maine. (In some places, it's even OK to have the system connected if the car is en route to or from a racetrack, car show, or similar off-highway event.) According to Jason, "This compromise approach counters overreaching proposals from some lawmakers who believe that the mere presence of a nitrous system should be a punishable offense.
" How can you help get laws based on this model legislation enacted in your state? "It's simple," says Jason. "Visit the SAN Web site (www.semasan.com), download the model legislation, and pass it along to your state lawmakers. Once a bill is introduced, the SAN will mobilize its members in your state to help get it passed!" For more information, contact the SAN at the phone number below.