As we approach high summer and peak motorcycle riding season, 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 personal 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. At the other end of the spectrum, a jet during takeoff is 140 decibels and a jackhammer is 130. Apparently, the loudest noise the human ear can tolerate is around 194 decibels.
Unmuffled bikes then, at 90 to 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 an urban area 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 annoying twits 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. Trying to argue that loud pipes don’t save lives because they’re so annoying is ridiculous. And nine times out of 10, 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.
That said, loud pipes can help. 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. Some cities across Canada have 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 those pipes conform to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines. Even now, any bike exceeding 80 decibels in the Golden State is breaking the law.
However, in a report conducted by the U.S.-based Office of Legislative Research, the analysts noted: “Despite the EPA requirements, an online search shows that there continue to be complaints about excessive noise from motorcycles, 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.
In fact, 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 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.
I’ll tone down my exhaust note and ride a quieter motorcycle if you drive your car in a responsible manner and stop looking at motorcyclists as if they’re dispensable.
Ted Laturnus has been an automotive journalist since 1976. He has been named Canadian Automotive Journalist Of The Year twice and is past president of the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).