Motorcycle Noise Offender - Is The Government Clogging Our Pipes?

Sound Or Noise? Quality Or Quantity? Tone Or Volume?

A growing concern in the motorcycle community is the increasing intrusion into the riding lifestyle by federal, state, and local organizations. Safety, toxic emissions, and noise are coming under greater scrutiny and thus more legislation, ordinance, and regulation. Safety is an ongoing issue, well covered in many publications. Emissions and the EPA were discussed in the June '05 issue of HOT BIKE. This article is about noise and noise-emission control.

Motorcycle riders, especially the owners of V-Twin-powered machines, enjoy the sound of their bikes. There's no denying it. That powerful sound satisfies some deep pleasure node buried in the brain. Whether it's a primeval instinct to respect the roar of a king predator or the adrenaline surge that comes from fear of nearby thunder, how can anything so much fun be so controversial? How can anything so essential cause the end of riding as you now know it?

"Secondhand noise" is a phrase that's used in the excessive noise debates. The similarity to another well-known phrase is not a coincidence. The words evoke strong parallels to the smoking debates of the last few decades. That is a very scary thought. Why? Because when "secondhand smoke" became a major health issue, smokers weren't asked to smoke less, to use filters, or to blow the other way. No, they were banned from smoking in both public places and private offices, locations they had previously enjoyed without restriction. Do you think there's an implied threat with this expression?

There are other similarities between the two issues. Smoking wasn't banned in public areas because non-smokers didn't like smoke or were outraged by it or even thought they had a right to a smoke-free area. Disputes along these lines were viewed as a minor difference of opinion or a minor conflict between equal rights. Everyone had the right to either smoke or not to smoke. In the same way, many disputes about noise are viewed as minor disagreements between citizens: a public disturbance of the peace, an irritating nuisance, or disorderly conduct. There are plenty of laws already on the books to cover those generally mild offenses. Any extreme restrictions based on those issues are usually ignored or overturned.

How was smoking banned, and does that story offer any predictions about the future of noise-emission control for motorcyclists? Concern for public health and the associated cost to society prevailed over smoker's rights. More importantly, it was not concern for the health of the smoker, or else all smoking would have been banned. No, it was concern for the health of the involuntary recipient of secondhand smoke. While there may exist a right to choose to damage your own health, no one has the right to inflict harm on others who can't avoid the danger and who suffer from the consequences.

Apparently following the example of the smoking-ban campaign, several federal and state agencies (including the EPA and the CDC), other world governments, world health organizations, and private no-noise groups are compiling data to show that noise is an increasing public health problem. The CDC says that noise can have the following adverse health effects: hearing loss, sleep disturbances, cardiovascular and psychophysiologic problems, performance reduction, annoyance responses, and adverse social behavior. Studies also describe the negative impact of excessive noise on a community's quality of life. Finally, the cost of noise pollution is being tallied. These costs range all the way from individual medical expenses to the construction of highway noise-abatement walls. Do these tactics sound familiar? The only real difference here is that there are no deep pockets (i.e., tobacco companies) to sue. Or are there? That hand hasn't yet been played.

It's also worth noting that smokers as a group didn't volunteer to stop smoking in public places or restrict their smoking in any way. Many individual smokers chose to be polite and honor the wishes of nonsmokers. A few smokers remained outspoken and loudly proclaimed their right to smoke. Today you see similar behavior among bikers. However, with smokers it didn't make any difference.

Many motorcyclists rightly assert that they shouldn't be singled out by special laws that restrict the sound of their pipes. What about all those other more obnoxious and often dangerous sources? The fact of the matter is that, deservedly or not, motorcycles appear on almost every list of major noise offenders. For example, the Right to Quiet Society (www.quiet.org) lists as its No. 3 objective (out of 21) "better enforcement of laws governing unmuffled vehicles, especially 'chopper' motorcycles." Bikers are targeted right after regulating aircraft over populated areas, national parks, and wilderness areas but well ahead of the "elimination of 'boom cars'" (No. 11).

In another example, the AMA reports in the September '04 News & Notes that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed rewriting the city's noise regulations to deal with the leading complaint about the city's quality of life. The changes would prohibit any sound that increases the ambient noise inside a residence by 10 decibels during the day and 7 decibels at night. This latest effort is part of Bloomberg's attempt to fight noise by cracking down on loud bars, cars, and motorcycles.

The point is that the issue of loud pipes must be included in the bigger debate of excessive noise. Sure, there will be cases where local communities specifically ban or restrict motorcycles because of the noise. Riders must challenge those restrictions at every opportunity. But they will be much harder to overturn if there are already deep restrictions on all noise over a certain limit at the federal and state levels.

Just where in the overall hierarchy of noise makers do other organizations put motorcycles? As noted with the Right To Quiet Society, pretty high. Sound intensity is measured in decibels (dB), a relative unit of sound loudness to humans. Zero decibels is considered the point where a person begins to hear a sound. A quiet room is about 40 dB. Sounds greater than 80 dB are considered potentially dangerous. The EPA stated that typical noise emissions per vehicle are 85 dB for an auto, 95 dB for a heavy truck, 100 dB for a bus, and 110 dB for a motorcycle. The EPA further states that numerous research projects on the effects of noise indicate that an outdoor sound level of 65 dB is unacceptable and an outdoor level of less than 55 dB is desirable. Current EPA noise-emission standards for street motorcycles are in the low 80s.

Get informed on the issues-on the current situation and on existing or pending legislation, regulations, and especially your local ordinances. For example, the City of Houston has a noise and sound-level regulation which states that no person shall permit a sound discernible beyond their property that exceeds 65 dB during the day and 58 during the night. If city officials chose to enforce that code, most bikers in Houston wouldn't be able to start up in their own driveways. To learn what the restrictions are in your area, go to the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse (www.nonoise.org) and search its NPC Law Library.

Join a motorcycle organization such as the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) or the Motorcycle Riders Foundation (MRF). You may not agree with their position on every issue, but at least they're up there pointing the finger in the face of the powers-that-be and reminding them that bikers have rights, too!

Get involved at the local level. It's more likely that your homeowners association will ban your bike from the neighborhood-or your county sheriff will write you a ticket-than the state police will pull you over for loud pipes. Be sensitive to your community's perception of motorcycles and be willing to join in to educate and inform nonriders of the issues so that a balanced and reasonable compromise can be reached.