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Who likes loud cars? Ontario study suggests they skew young, male and score high on psychopathy and sadism

The gunshot pop of tailpipes, the roar of engines and the sound of tires screaming rubber against pavement evoke a range of emotions. A Western University prof in London, Ont., wondered "who wants to make this kind of noise." Her study suggests young men who love loud cars tend to score high on psychopathic and sadistic tendencies and she plans to expand on it.

Western University prof says noise pollution from illegal cars needs to be taken seriously

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A professor at Western University in London, Ont., is looking to expand on a study published last spring that suggests there's a strong correlation between young men who want a car with a modified muffler and the dark personality traits of sadism and psychopathy. (Shutterstock)

There's a clandestine car scene in Canada that most people often don't see, but they can sure hear it — usually at night and often from a bedroom window left open in the summer with the hope of catching a cool overnight breeze.

The noise is often hard to place in terms of distance, but definitely distinct: young gearheads who gather at unsanctioned car rallies in empty parking lots, or guerrilla drag races at desolate city intersections. 

These tricked-out rides — with the gunshot pop of tailpipes, the surly roar of engines and the sound of tires screaming rubber against pavement — pierce the night and sometimes even the restless buzz of the day. They're heard through trees and over rooftops, in some cases, jarring people awake and prompting calls to police. 

For Julie Aitken Schermer, a professor of psychology and management and organizational studies at Western University in London, Ont., they'd rumble by as she walked her dog just south of the campus. 

WATCH | Cars making revving and other noises on Windsor, Ont.'s riverfront:

Cars making noise on Windsor's riverfront

1 year ago
Duration 0:28
This video provided by Joan Charette illustrates the noise she and other neighbours are dealing with.

"Every day we come across these loud cars and pickup trucks and motorcycles that are backfiring and I get startled," she said. "My dog was startled. I see the animals run away that are in the trees and squirrels on the ground.

"I thought, 'Oh, who really wants to make this kind of noise?' And so a typical academic, I went and did an extensive search and found nothing."

Because there were no psychological studies on what kind of person prefers loud cars, Schermer conducted one of her own.

The pilot study, titled "A desire for a loud car with a modified muffler is predicted by being a man and higher scores on psychopathy and sadism," was published last year in the international journal Current Issues in Personality Psychology. Schermer also wrote about it in Psychology Today

We found that it was sadism and psychopathy was predicting who wants to modify their mufflers, who feels more connected to their vehicle, and they think loud cars are really cool.- Julie Aitken Schermer, Western University researcher

As part of the research, Schermer surveyed 529 undergrad business students — 289 men, 234 women and six who identified as "other." They were asked if they viewed their car as an extension of themselves, how much they thought loud cars were "cool" and if they would make their cars louder with muffler modifications. 

Schermer also gave them a Short Dark Tetrad (SD4) personality measure — another questionnaire that assesses a cluster of malicious personality traits, including narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism (linked to being cunning and manipulative).

When she got the results, she expected to see a strong correlation between someone who prefers a look-at-me exhaust system and narcissism, but that wasn't the case. 

"We found that it was sadism and psychopathy was predicting who wants to modify their mufflers, who feels more connected to their vehicle, and they think loud cars are really cool.

"It seems to be this callous disregard for other people's feelings and their reactions. That's the psychopathy coming out and it's also they probably get a kick out of enjoying watching people get startled."

'This is a stereotype,' car enthusiast says

As you can imagine, some car enthusiasts don't react well to this study. 

Bailey Trap, for instance, grew up in a family that loves big, loud cars so much that they started a business.

a woman posing with a pickup truck
Bailey Trap, 38, loves muscle cars so much that she has a tattoo of a 1966 Chevelle on her right forearm. She says car enthusiasts are looking for a way to express themselves and often raise money for charity at sanctioned events. (Submitted by Bailey Trap)

Performance Unlimited is a London custom car shop that specializes in loud vehicles, such as muscle cars, hot rods, tricked-out pickup trucks and specialty custom vehicles. 

"Dad has a '66 Chevelle that he's had since I was a little kid and it is a large motor and it is loud, and I absolutely love it. I actually have it tattooed on my arm, that's how much I love it," said Trap, 38. 

CBC News gave Trap a copy of Schermer's study to review. She doesn't think it's an accurate reflection of the car enthusiast community. 

It's a way for somebody to stand out in a society that wants you to conform.- Bailey Trap, Performance Unlimited custom car shop

"This is a stereotype," she said. "Obviously you're going to have more men liking vehicles and using that as a way to express themselves.

"A lot of the guys I see with loud cars are older gentlemen," she said, noting the car community regularly holds events like cruise nights that raise money for charity. 

To her, the surly rumble of a gas-guzzling engine or the shotgun-like pop of a tailpipe is a means of expression, like a pair of ripped jeans or a bright sparkly dress. 

"It's a creative form. It's a way for somebody to stand out in a society that wants you to conform," she said. "It may not be your taste, but it is something that says something about them."

When put to Schermer, the psychology professor said "that's a different demographic and characteristic from what I studied."

Quiet car bylaws aim to curb noise

Schermer said that, unlike guerrilla car enthusiasts who drag race at red lights or meet in a deserted parking lot of a big-box store, people who go to scheduled, sanctioned events that raise money for charity are more likely to modify their cars in a legal and safe way and, if you asked them politely, they would probably keep it down.

"The personality profile I found with our loud mufflers are also the same personality profiles of people who illegally commit arson," she said. "I'm sure the older, retired gentlemen who are making their classic cars louder and more noticeable are also not going out and setting fires illegally."

Schermer said the issue of noise pollution from illegal car meets needs to be taken more seriously. It's why she plans to expand on the study. 

In response to the rising number of illegal car meets, drag races and excessive noise, many Canadian cities have created quiet car bylaws to crack down on the clandestine activity.

In London in particular, city police have been doing regular enforcement blitzes since 2020, laying hundreds of charges each year.

In 2020 alone, the city's police laid 110 charges for improper mufflers, 38 charges for "causing noise likely to disturb" and four charges for making illegal modifications to vehicles, including removing emissions controls. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Butler

Reporter

Colin Butler covers the environment, real estate, justice as well as urban and rural affairs for CBC News in London, Ont. He is a veteran journalist with 20 years' experience in print, radio and television in seven Canadian cities. You can email him at colin.butler@cbc.ca.