As we approach peak motorcycle-riding season, it’s time to ask the eternal question: do loud pipes save lives?
That depends on who you talk to, of course. Some folks consider any two-wheeled transport that’s not human-powered to be too loud, while others view sound restrictions as a direct assault on their personal freedoms.
According to the American Speech Language Hearing Association, normal conversation between people is in the 50-to-60-decibel range, as are various appliances, such as dishwashers and vacuum cleaners. A library-quiet room is in the 30-decibel neighbourhood; at the other end of the spectrum, a jet plane during takeoff is 140 decibels, and a jackhammer is 130. The loudest noise the human ear can tolerate is around 120 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 downtown just to hear his exhaust note bounce off the buildings is an overgrown juvenile delinquent and should be fined immediately—not to mention required to seek professional psychiatric help.
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 that of 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 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 reverie for a second or two; we’re talking about safety here, which is more important than you being woken up from your slumber.
“Loud pipes annoy people,” agrees Brian Lowes, 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 oblivion, then at least the drivers know that the motorcyclist is there. They may not like the noise, and won’t necessarily 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 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 Canadian cities 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 bike manufactured after 2013 won’t be allowed to use after-market 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 study 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 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 in the death race on Canada’s highways and byways. It’s not much, but it’s better than no help at all.
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. 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, 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.