Loud pipes save lives or risk rights?

Aftermarket motorcycle pipes
To some, the sound from these pipes alert motorists; to others, the noise is a loud nuisance.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki

More Minnesotans are riding motorcycles than ever before. The Department of Public Safety reports that the number of riders in Minnesota jumped 75% in the past 10 years, which follows a national trend. A good portion of these new riders are baby-boomers. But with more motorcycles comes more noise. whether motorcycle noise prevents crashes or is merely a nuisance.

"This motorcycle is unique and you make it yours by adding and switching out aftermarket products to make it truly your own." Ruth Busman on her Harley-Davidson.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki

For those who survive winter's claustrophobia there is nothing better than sliding open a window and letting in spring's fresh, warm breezes. That is, unless a loud motorcycle goes by.

Motorcycle noise has become a staple of warm weather. To some, the noise is an auditory insult; to motorcyclists such as Tom Gallagher, the noise alerts distracted motorists that he's near:

"People, they don't see motorcycles because we're smaller. They look in the mirror and they're looking for that giant SUV and they don't see it so they just move over and 'whoa wait a minute, I'm over here!' The next thing you know I'm doing an evasive maneuver to save my life," says Gallagher.

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St. Paul Police Sgt. Curt Sandell says any motorcyclist can make loud pipes no longer than a car and even stock pipes may sound loud. He says it's all in the right wrist and how they throttle.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki

Motorcycles don't come from the factory with loud pipes; riders add them later. Enthusiasts like them because they provide faster acceleration...and increased noise. Under the law, every vehicle is supposed to have a muffler. The so-called straight pipes have none. Ruth Busman rides a Harley Davidson 2004 Heritage Softail Classic.

Busman's black Harley is loaded with chrome -- and aftermarket pipes. Like Tom Gallagher, she says the loud noise has kept her safe. Unlike Gallagher, she doesn't wear a helmet. She says it blocks her peripheral vision. She says motorcyclists are highly individualistic souls and modifying their bikes to reflect their personalities is key to the riding experience

"There's a certain sound and a certain look that to me is very important. This motorcycle is unique and you make it yours by adding and switching out aftermarket products to make it truly your own," Busman says.

"I understand that these loud noises are disturbing and annoying to people...but I think that when it comes to motorcycles, there's a legitimate reason for it."

Pat Hahn of the state of Minnesota's Motorcycle Safety Center says he understands individual expression. But he says the idea that loud pipes save lives is a myth. Hahn, who writes books and articles on motorcycle safety says there's a problem with the safety theory because the pipes direct the sound backwards.

"Seventy-seven percent of all motorcycle accident hazards come from the 11 to 1:00 direction, from in front of the motorcycle rider. And people that are 500 feet in front of you that may turn in front of you that will violate your right of way; they can't hear it because it's pointed the other way," says Hahn.

Hahn says there are better ways for riders to be seen: wearing bright colored clothes and helmets plus riding brightly-colored bikes. He says a New Zealand study found wearing bright colors lowered the chance of a motorcycle-vehicle crash by 37%.

There is no surefire way to gauge whether there is more motorcycle noise over the past decade. The State Patrol didn't have numbers on how often troopers cite motorcyclists for noise; city police departments like Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth did not have them readily available. Typically, citing a motorcyclist for noise is at the officer's discretion. But there is one constant and that's more people are riding motorcycles in Minnesota than ever before at about 115,000.

Tom Gallagher(L) speaks with Pat Hahn (R) about whether loud pipes increase safety. Gallagher says yes; Hahn says no. They do agree, however that bright colored riding gear helps safety.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki

Sgt. Curt Sandell, who is in charge of the St. Paul traffic enforcement unit, says with so many motorcycles on the road, there will be more noise because police can't keep up. On this day, Sandell is supervising a training course for motorcycle cops who are practicing breaking maneuvers. Sandell says any motorcyclist can make loud pipes sound no louder than a car; and can make even stock pipes sound loud. He says it's all in the right wrist and how they throttle.

"I actually had one where I stopped at an intersection behind somebody and the light turned green and he didn't know I was a police officer and boy he took off like crazy really loud. Well he forced me to stop him and when I stopped him I said, 'what are you doing? I'm right behind you.' 'I didn't know you were a cop; I was showing off to you.' So I said, 'guess what, here, now you can remember what date you were showing off,'" Sandell says.

Motorcyclist Tom Gallagher agrees there are motorcyclists who make noise just to show off. But he says there are many others who use it solely for safety. He does everything he can to increase his safety; he wears a helmet and bright protective clothing. He says dump trucks, semis, even cars with stereos are as loud or louder than motorcycles and for these vehicles, and the noise isn't related to safety; for him it is.

"I understand that these loud noises are disturbing and annoying to people, including to me but I think that when it comes to motorcycles, there's a legitimate reason for it because they do in certain circumstances provide a significant safety advantage which could save my life or the life of someone you love and therefore I think it's worth it," says Gallagher. Years ago, cyclists started a campaign called "loud pipes save lives." But manufacturers like Harley-Davidson and groups like the American Motorcyclist Association now voice the mantra -- "loud pipes risk rights." That's because communities in Massachusetts and Arizona have threatened to ban motorcycles from riding in certain areas because of the noise. Just this month, the city of Stillwater began cracking down on motorcycle noise after complaints.