MC Safety

Loud Pipes Do What?


by Pat Hahn


All other things being equal, a loud motorcycle probably gets more attention than a quiet one, but at what cost? Is this good attention or bad attention? Let's think about this.

Ignoring the fact that many aftermarket pipes are illegal, motorcyclists who defer to the wisdom, "loud pipes save lives" are sadly misinformed. Riders who believe that an ear-shattering exhaust note actually increases safety are either kidding themselves or rationalizing self-indulgent behavior. Fact is, loud pipes do more to hurt motorcyclists than help them, the attention they draw to a rider is not worth the negative public image they create.

It's rooted in physics. Unlike an earthquake, which emits waves in a sphere away from its epicenter, sound waves can be directed. (A good example of this a megaphone: if sound waves were not directionally sensitive, megaphone users would all be deaf.) The pressure wave emitted from an exhaust pipe is pointed away from and behind the motorcycle. To hear it from anywhere other than directly behind the bike, you rely on the resonance of the pipes and reflection of the sound waves off of other objects, like cars, signs, buildings, etc.

In other words, the only time the loud pipes draw attention to a motorcycle in traffic is when the bike is facing away from the motorist. In most cases, facing away from the motorist means riding away from the motorist: increasing the separation of bike and potential hazard. The only possible situation in which a car can to pose an external threat to a motorcyclist when the bike is facing away from the car is if the motorist is backing up or (following) behind the rider. The threat exists, but only marginally: the Hurt Study found that a whopping three percent of accident hazards come directly from the rear (or the "six o'clock" direction).

Conversely, Hurt found that 77% of all accident hazards approach the motorcycle from in front of the rider (specifically, the eleven to one o'clock range). To have any chance of alerting those motorists to the presence of a motorcycle with exhaust noise would require that the tailpipe be pointed forward. The chances of rearward-facing straight pipes making a bike more obvious are very slim. The reality of the loud pipe is that all you'll succeed in doing is irritating all the people behind and beside you who don't pose much of a threat anyway.

So who cares about pissing off other road users? Who cares if you gun the throttle past an open driver's-side window and scare the hell out of the occupants? At least they see you, right? Maybe, but take a look at what happened to personal watercraft in Minnesota. They've effectively been relegated to the daylight hours so that residents and other users of lakes can have their quiet time. Take a look at what happened in Yellowstone. If you think for a minute that motorcyclists are banned from that park because of Hollywood stereotypes and bad PR, you're fooling yourself. (That's right, motorcycles have been banned from that park since the Seventies. Doesn't seem possible in America, does it? Guess what, it is.) Take a look at what happened in southern Minnesota around Sturgis-time this year: Johnny Law saturated I-90 and netted a couple of expensive Harleys, a couple drug busts, a bunch of DWIs, and quite a few illegal equipment fines, most all from two-wheeled travelers. The most common reason for a stop? Loud exhaust. It must've been like shooting fish in a barrel. Here we see how loud pipes did draw attention and probably did save some lives (by taking drunk bikers off the road before they hurt themselves.)

Seems like every year we hear about somebody trying to ban motorcycles from someplace or other. This isn't spontaneous, it's about the noise, and the behavior associated with the noise. There's nothing intrinsically foul or dangerous about loud motorcycles, but they aggravate an already poor stereotype and undoubtedly leave a negative impression on people who don't ride. Let's think about this: in the long run, loud pipes probably put our rights, our image and our lives at greater risk.

I've still got some rebellious head-banging music stashed away for special occasions, and I like it loud. That's what it's for, I didn't buy it for its aesthetic qualities, I bought it to piss off my parents. I like the sound of motorcycles, too, and at times, I enjoy it loud. Most times, though, I don't like it outside my bedroom window at one in the morning for example. And I don't like it on the road. It's irritating and embarrassing.

Many of us go out of our way to project a positive image, and a cacophonic exhaust note just makes the rest of us look bad. I'm an enthusiast, and totally partial to bikes; I have a strong affinity for motorcyclists of all types, and if this racket makes me angry,just imagine what it does to someone who's not sure whether they like motorcyclists or not. If they decide they don't like bikers, how careful will they be around them? How far out of their way will they go to protect a rider? If they have a bad experience with a motorcyclist, how likely is it that they'll respect other motorcyclists? Especially when they're deciding whether or not to turn left on the yellow with only a bike to worry about.

Think about it: on a sport bike with an aftermarket pipe, the exhaust note is relatively reasonable until the motor is wound up. Wringing the motor out is a double whammy, excessive noise compounded by the impression of reckless acceleration. This behavior not only sounds obnoxious, but looks obnoxious, connotes irresponsibility, and can safely be labeled the origin of the phrase, "those damn kids on crotch rockets." Again, it makes the rest of us look bad. Equally detrimental is the guy who guns the throttle on his straight-piped cruiser, not so much for acceleration (if he wanted acceleration, he'd buy a sport bike, or a car), but rather for the sheer pleasure of the noise. The problem is, he's already half deaf from the wind, and HE CAN'T HEAR IT. IT'S POINTED AWAY FROM HIM. How about the guy who entertains himself by blipping the throttle at the stoplight? Maybe he's trying to keep it running (I doubt he'd admit it) but guess what? IT'S POINTED AWAY FROM HIM. He gets to hear it, but the rest of us have to listen to it, too, like it or not. This is attention for attention's sake, and not for safety. Spare us your posing; stop including everybody else in your rebellion, and put a muffler on the damned thing.

Put it another way: how much do you appreciate the "music" blaring from other people's cars: the throbbing car stereo that shakes the very ground with some indistinguishable bass riff? The worn-out sounds of "guitar rock" that the rest of us bored of twenty years ago? How interested in someone else's music are you? Who's that for, them, or everybody else? Perhaps nobody else wants to listen to it. Perhaps they don't like the sound. Maybe they're trying to concentrate, or talk, or watch TV, or sleep. Maybe their kids are trying to sleep.

So heres the rub: if it's lives you want to save, there are better options far more effective (and statistically significant) ways to lower the risks associated with riding than using an illegal exhaust pipe. Consider this: the Hurt Report showed that accident hazards in the areas around the motorcyclist from which a loud pipe can be usefully heard total only about six percent (the four to eight o'clock areas behind the bike). Spend a couple hundred dollars on an aftermarket pipe and reduce your risk of a crash with a vehicle by six percent, at best. But Hurt also found an astounding 92% of all "accident-involved" riders had no formal motorcycle training. They were either self-taught or learned from a friend or family member. Think about it: for the price of a high-performance, four-into-one exhaust system or a show-quality straight pipe, you can put yourself and three of your friends through an Experienced Rider Course and reduce your risk of any type of crash by ninety-two percent. Hell, a $30.00 reflective safety vest will save your biscuit a thousand times before that four-into-one will. Of course, black leather doesn't look as good smothered with ridiculous orange nylon. But it's lives you want to save, right? Right? The leather's just for protection, right?

In light of the negative effect that loud pipes have on motorcyclists' image, I simply can't buy the "loud pipes save lives" argument. It's especially hollow coming from someone who disregards traffic laws, doesn't use a riding strategy, has never taken rider training, doesn't wear a helmet, or doesn't wear protective gear. Do all these things as a rule, because you're honestly trying to reduce your risks, and the argument might hold water. It's possible that a loud pipe may, in some unlikely combination of events, save your life, but it's doubtful. There are far more effective ways to reduce your risks. The crux of it is that, until you've covered absolutely every other base, that worn-our battle cry is just a way to rationalize your flagrant self-indulgence. You'll not be fooling anybody but yourself.