Vroom for Improvement

New ordinances seek to reduce motorcycle noise.
by | November 2007

Motorcycle engines are not quiet. And for many bikers, that's the point. But for many local governments, which field citizen complaints about ear-splitting rumbling and revving from customized Harleys and Kawasakis, that's the problem.

In recent months (summer, after all, is when the most noise complaints come into city halls), quite a few municipalities and states have modified their noise ordinances to address this issue.

In New York City, where 90 percent of calls to the quality-of-life hotline concern noise of all kinds, motorcyclists are subject to a $400 fine if their bikes are audible from 200 feet away. In Carefree, Arizona, riders whose engine noise exceeds 80 decibels face fines up to $750. And in Denver, a new law fines bikers who replace the exhaust system of their motorcycles with anything but equipment from the original manufacturer, which is factory-tested to be below 82 decibels.

"Loud pipes are a real irritation and a distraction," says Ted Rueter, director of Noise-Free America, a group dedicated to fighting noise "pollution" of all kinds. In his view, motorcycle noise "is completely gratuitous."

The American Motorcyclist Association basically agrees. Motorcycles do not have to be deafeningly loud, says Bill Wood, the group's spokesman. Fifty motorcycles can go by and people won't notice, but "one loud one goes by and people say, 'Motorcycles are loud.'" And then governments clamp down, creating hardships for all bikers, he says.

There's a large contingent of motorcyclists who believe that "loud pipes save lives." That is, if they can be heard at all times, it's less likely that cars will run into them because they don't notice them. Woods, however, promotes the counter concept of "loud pipes risk rights," for all bikers.

Because individual ordinances vary, it's difficult for riders to know when they're in compliance as they travel around the country. For instance, the California Vehicle Code limits the noise from motorcycles built after 1985 to 80 decibels, while in Asheville, North Carolina, riders are violating the law if their bikes exceed 60 decibels at a distance of 50 feet.

Denver decided to change its old 80-decibel limit to 82 decibels to conform to EPA standards. That allows law enforcement officers to check loud motorcycles to see if they sport a sticker on their mufflers proving they are built with EPA-approved parts. Officers then can enforce the ordinance without having to carry around an expensive noise meter.

The Denver ordinance applies to any vehicle under 10,000 pounds, which would also include most cars, but motorcyclists complain it discriminates against them because they're the only ones that have to have the stickers for law enforcement to check. The sticker requirement means that motorcycle owners cannot buy less expensive "aftermarket" parts to replace damaged or worn out exhaust systems.

Factory parts are no longer made for some of the older motorcycles, so if the exhaust system on one of those vehicles wears out or is damaged in an accident, the motorcycle can no longer be ridden, according to Denver's ordinance, or any other that relies on EPA- approved parts. The motorcyclist association says ordinances should be based on performance, not the type of equipment.

The EPA standard that leads to the stickers on new equipment is a "ride-by" test conducted from 50 feet away on a certified range with a certified sound technician running the test. A sound ordinance using decibels is useful only if there are two pieces of information working together: distance from the muffler and an RPM (rotations per minute) setting of the engine. "Saying '82 decibels' means nothing," says Wood. "Is that with the engine off? Passing a mile away?" Technically, he believes, there is no way to enforce many of these sound ordinances and no way for motorcyclists to know if they're in compliance.

Instead of relying on such numbers, Daytona Beach, Florida, addresses behavior with its ordinance. The city welcomes thousands of motorcyclists during an annual Bike Week, but it doesn't want to incur the wrath of non-riding residents during the event. So the city passed a noise ordinance that says that no person "shall operate any noise- creating device for the purpose of drawing attention to the source of the noise." In other words, no showing off by revving engines at stoplights. Or, in biker parlance, no throttle jockeying.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist | mailbox@governing.com