It’s the Noise

IMG_5500by Scott A. Williams

Like many motorcycle riders, I enjoy the sound of a well-tuned motor. Over the years I’ve learned to identify many motors by their distinctive sounds: the purr of a Honda flat six, the snarl of a desmo Ducati, the whir of a BMW boxer, the potato-potato-potato of a Harley-Davidson.

Like many motorcycle riders, I have a problem with excessive exhaust noise. Both of my motorcycles have exhaust systems that comply with state and federal noise limits. They’re no louder than most cars and quieter than many, but that doesn’t mean I can ride those bikes to all the same places where cars are allowed. My mother and aunt both have homes in developments where motorcycles are not allowed because the homeowner associations voted to prohibit ALL motorcycles from the property. Why? Because of the noise made by SOME motorcycles.

Blanket enforcement of an easy-to-define category is less trouble than fair enforcement based on individual behavior. Private property owners can decide to whom they will grant access, of course, but they aren’t the only ones trying to keep motorcycles out. Government entities are testing the waters with legislation to ban motorcycles – all motorcycles – from scenic areas, specific districts or even entire towns. In Delray Beach, Florida, for example, lawmakers tried to keep motorcycles out of a popular outdoor dining district because business owners and patrons had complained about excessive noise from bikes whose riders repeatedly cruise past the open-air restaurants. Motorcycle bans have been enacted or attempted in locations including St. Louis, Detroit, Denver, Boston, Springfield IL, and Brockton MA.

In 2010, then California Governor (and motorcyclist) Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law the Motorcycle Anti-Tampering Act (SB 435). Originally introduced by state Senator Fran Pavley of Santa Monica, the new law requires all motorcycles produced after January 2013 to have a visible EPA stamp that ensures the exhaust is clean burning and doesn’t exceed a noise level of 80 decibels. Not displaying an official stamp subjects the owner to fines of $100 for the first infraction and $250 for subsequent violations. “The noise caused by illegally modified motorcycle exhaust systems is a major quality-of-life issue across the state,” Senator Pavley said.

As citizens become increasingly frustrated with loud exhaust, politicians pass anti-noise laws that target motorcycles specifically. That’s no surprise since politicians like getting re-elected. There are far more non-riders than riders, so riders hold little sway as a voting bloc, but there are organizations that represent our interests. The American Motorcyclist Association, for example, advocates for motorcyclists’ interests in the halls of local, state and federal government, the committees of international governing organizations, and the court of public opinion. The Association’s position on noise is unambiguous: “Few other factors contribute more to misunderstanding and prejudice against the motorcycling community than excessively noisy motorcycles.” (Read the AMA’s position paper on noise.)

The motorcycle enthusiast press continues to come out against excessive noise. In a December 2009 editorial, Rider magazine put it this way: “Motorcycle riders and the industry have a sound problem. You know it, I know it and the guys with open pipes on their bikes. Well, they may be too deaf by now to know it.”

In a November 2010 special report, Motorcyclist magazine reminded readers that a few bad apples are spoiling the fun for everyone: “The relatively small number of motorcyclists who ride on streets and trails with unmuffled straight pipes or competition aftermarket exhaust systems perpetuate a public myth that all motorcycles are too loud and therefore must be eliminated from public places or severely regulated. Every single loud motorcycle reinforces the stereotype.”

Noise is indeed subjective and what’s obnoxious to one person may be music to another, but noise is the first thing people tell me they don’t like about motorcycles. Since I ride a lot and talk even more, plenty of people get the chance. Consider an example. On a flight from Jacksonville to Philadelphia, I sat next to a woman who told me she was from St. Augustine, Florida. I’ve never been there so I asked her what it’s like. She said she loves it, year round – except during Bike Week when riders come up from Daytona Beach to have a look at the oldest town in America. I asked what she didn’t like about that. She said “the noise” and went on about how much she hates motorcycles and the people who ride them.

When she came up for air, I said that I ride a motorcycle. After an awkward pause she said, “You don’t look like a biker.” I asked her what people who ride motorcycles look like. Before that pause became awkward, too, I shifted into motorcycle ambassador mode.

“I’d wager that my motorcycle is as quiet as your car,” I said. “Maybe quieter.”  Her expression revealed skepticism. I couldn’t start up my bike for her on the plane, but I had my laptop with me so I showed her some pictures. She saw my bike, some beautiful destinations I’d reached on two wheels, and rally events where motorcyclists get together for riding and fellowship. “None of these bikes has loud pipes,” I explained.

“Really?” she said, genuinely surprised. She asked about my high-visibility riding jacket and wondered if I really wore that crash helmet. I explained that I wear all the gear, all the time, whether I’m going a mile up the road or thousands of miles on a trip. “You go thousands of miles on a motorcycle?” I said I did, as often as I get the opportunity and that I write feature articles about my experiences for publications that emphasize touring on two wheels.

She seemed to get my point – that not all riders ruin her peace and quiet – so I moved to other subjects. Turns out she was a college professor and I was returning from a business trip to a college, so we had plenty to talk about. As we were leaving the airplane I thanked her for the conversation. She shook my hand and thanked me for opening her mind on the subject of motorcycles.

On a flight from Fredericton to Toronto, I talked with a Canadian who voiced strong and negative opinions about loud pipes before I even raised the topic of motorcycles. This person couldn’t get over why Americans insist on putting loud pipes on motorcycles. I said not all of us do and shifted into ambassador mode. In addition to discovering that many motorcyclists dislike excessive noise, my fellow traveler also learned that not every motorcycle is a Harley-Davidson. “So you’re telling me Honda makes motorcycles now? And BMW?”

While returning from a ride one summer afternoon, I saw an older couple strolling on the sidewalk less than a mile from my home. As I got closer they stopped and faced me with their fingers in their ears. I pulled over, said “Hello” and introduced myself. Without turning the motor off, I explained that just because it’s a motorcycle doesn’t mean it’s loud. They seemed to agree and wished me a good afternoon. I thanked them and rode home.

I’ve had similar conversations in restaurants, in business situations, on vacation, at community functions and at roadside stops. I’ve heard a few complaints about motorcycles regarding excessive speed or reckless riding, but the vast majority of complaints are about excessive noise. Even though a small percentage of motorcycles are making that noise, it’s putting all motorcycles in the crosshairs of people who would undertake to make them illegal.

Those of us who ride should not kid ourselves that riding is a right. As is the case with any motor vehicle, operating a motorcycle on public roads and public lands is a privilege granted by and regulated by government. Increasingly, that privilege is at risk and it’s no secret why: it’s the noise.

Please ride quietly.


Copyright © by Scott A. Williams. All rights reserved.