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2013 Harley-Davidson

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With motorcycle riding season behind us, it’s time to ask the eternal question: do loud pipes save lives?

Depends who you talk to, of course. Some folks consider any two-wheeled transport not human-powered to be too loud, while others view sound restrictions as a direct assault on their person freedom.

According to the American Speech Language Hearing Association, normal conversation between people is in the 60 decibel range, as are various appliances, such as a dishwasher or vacuum cleaner. A library-quiet room is in the 30 decibel neighbourhood, and, at the other end of the spectrum, a jet plane during take off, 140 decibels, and a jackhammer, 130. Apparently, the loudest noise the human ear can tolerate is around 194 decibels.

Un-muffled bikes then, at 90 – 100 decibels, are somewhere in the middle, depending on how extreme they are and how the bike is being operated. I’ll be the first to admit that the weekend warrior who revs his engine incessantly at a stoplight or blasts through the west end just to hear his exhaust note bounce off the buildings, is an overgrown juvenile delinquent and should be fined immediately. Not to mention being required to seek professional psychiatric help.

And incidentally, these half-wits aren’t exclusively Harley-Davidson riders. There are any number of Harley imitators out there these days – from all the major manufacturers – whose exhaust note is almost indistinguishable from the Milwaukee manufacturer.

This is also the heart of the matter. There’s no shortage of people who hate loud motorcycles. But that’s a separate issue. Let me say it again: a separate issue. Trying to argue that loud pipes don’t save lives because they’re so annoying is ridiculous. And, nine times out of ten, when someone attempts to build a case against loud pipes, they confuse dislike with logic. Loud motorcycles can be annoying, that’s understood, but they only disrupt your quietude for a second or two, and we’re talking about safety here. It’s not about you being woken up from your slumber.

“Loud pipes annoy people,” agrees Brian Lowe, chief instructor at Roadcraft, a Vancouver-based advanced riding academy that specializes in collision avoidance techniques and upgrading riding skills. “And from a safety point of view, it doesn’t seem to be beneficial to have a loud motorcycle, because many times, the trouble is ahead of the rider….the guy turning left in front of you, for example…. and loud pipes won’t help you then.”

That said, Lowes concedes that loud pipes can help “sometimes”. If, for example, they help riders get the attention of automobile drivers beside or around them, who tend to be in their own little bubble of existence, then at least the drivers know that the motorcyclist is there. They may not like the noise, and that doesn’t mean he or she will do the right thing, but, in a car-motorcycle accident, the most often-heard excuse is, “I just didn’t see him”. I can testify to this from personal experience, although, in my case, loud pipes wouldn’t have made any difference.

But anti-loud pipe hysteria is in full swing these days. Some cities across Canada have recently enacted anti-loud pipe legislation….Vancouver and Edmonton to name two. In California, which surely has more motorcycles per capita than anywhere else in North America, any bikes manufactured after 2013 won’t be allowed to use aftermarket pipes unless said pipes conform to EPA guidelines. Even now, any bike exceeding 80 decibels in the golden state is breaking the law.

However, in a report conducted by the US-based Office of Legislative Research, the analysts noted : “Despite the EPA requirements, an on-line search shows that there continue to be complaints about excessive motorcycle noise, typically caused by motorcyclists modifying or bypassing the vehicle's original exhaust system or replacing it with a louder after-market system.”

Again, this is an environmental complaint, not a safety issue, and loud pipes, even if they only help the rider “sometimes”, are one of the few aids riders possess on the death- race of Canada’s highways and byways. It’s not much, but it’s better than no help at all.

And it’s interesting to note that people seem to get more excited over loud pipes than they do about some groups getting around the helmet laws by claiming that helmets restrict their ability to wear religious headgear, and damn the injury risks. Following that line of reasoning, you could argue that loud pipes potentially help cut down on medical costs: if my loud exhaust makes drivers aware of me, and they behave accordingly, then that’s potentially one less accident and one less burden on the medical system, right?  

I’ll tell you what. I’ll tone down my exhaust note and ride a quieter motorcycle if you get your head out of your posterior, drive your car in a responsible manner, and stop looking at motorcyclists as if they’re dispensable.