Loud Pipes Save Lives


The Madness Behind the Myth

I had originally planed on continuing with the series I was doing on the history of the motorcycle for this month’s article until a neighbor of mine came home last weekend with a brand new bike. Practically before he had gotten off he informed me that one of the first things he was going to do was get a set of louder pipes, as this would help to ensure his safety by being heard from a greater distance. Safety??! Hogwash! Balderdash! Bull cookies! Well that set me off, and I proceeded to make an attempt to dissuade him from this (in my opinion) erroneous view that “Loud Pipes Save Lives”. I don’t think I got very far in my first attempt, though, he seemed pretty adamant in his view.

So I decided that perhaps the best approach would be to do some digging and see what I could find in the way of supporting facts, both pro and con. Perhaps I was wrong and they really do save lives, seemed doubtful, but I’ve always considered myself as someone who is willing to keep an open mind until the facts are in. In doing my research on the subject I found many opinions but very little in the way of hard facts on the issue of “do loud pipes save lives?” In the end I could not find a single “fact” that supports the idea, but I did find a number of opinions to support it, opinions that were, as far as I could see, weakly masqueraded as “facts”. To be fair, neither could I find any facts in support of the idea they don’t. What I did find was numerous reasons why (overly) loud pipes can be detrimental to motorcycling as a whole. Here’s a synopsis of what I found.

Supporters of the idea seemed to consist for the most part of folks that either sold (loud) aftermarket pipes, or folks who road bikes with loud(er) aftermarket pipes. Yet these same folks could not provide any hard facts to back up their claim, the best they could come up with were rather vague statements about how if they make lots of noise “(car drivers) are sure as heck gonna hear me!” or claims that loud pipes give the other motorists ample warning of the approaching biker as they cruise up from behind. These statements seem to presuppose several assumptions that; 1) the other driver is not only going to hear the biker, but take the time to identify their actual location, 2) drivers in general rely on sound as much as vision to locate and avoid obstacles (in this case the motorcyclist), 3) the other driver gives enough of a damn about motorcyclists in the first place to do (1) and (2) above, and 4) that sounds emanating from a motorcycle’s exhaust travel equally in all directions from the source. These seem, to me, to be a rather risky set of suppositions with little, if any, basis in fact. It is well documented that vision plays a much bigger role in operator safety than sound. Think about the last time you heard a siren, were you able to identify the location of the approaching vehicle by the sound alone or did you not in fact have to wait to make visual contact with it before you could precisely identify its location relative to you? Do proponents of loud pipes really believe that other motorists are going to concentrate on locating the approaching motorcycle and keep it in view till it is well past them and out of harms way? Where is the evidence to support such a claim?

An article in the Concord Monitor (Sunday, October, 2002, by Sarah M. Earle) quotes one mechanic at a local Concord bike shop as stating that the other driver cut off 80% of his customers who had been involved in an accident. Sounds reasonable and that is indeed what the Hurt report found in it’s study. Unfortunately he then goes on to state that this justifies his customers modifying their exhaust (to something louder) to ensure that they will be noticed in the future. He further states that changing out the exhaust is done purely for safety reasons. I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe that, nor do I really believe he does either. That sounds too much like an attempt to justify something that’s done for entirely different reasons, i.e. they just like the louder sound.

On the other hand The American Motorcyclist Association, The Hurt Report, and many riders and bikers themselves seemed to be of the opposite opinion. The AMA has gone so far as to make a policy statement on the issue which reads “ The [AMA] believes that few other factors contribute more to misunderstanding and prejudice against the motorcycling community than excessively noisy motorcycles”. They then go on to say, “Shifting blame and failing to adopt responsible policies on a voluntary basis can only result in greater prejudice and discrimination against motorcycling. The consequences of continuing to ignore this issue will likely result in excessively rigorous state and federal standards, ……[and] abusive enforcement of current laws and other solutions undesirable to riders and the motorcycle industry”

What this shows is that there is a bigger issue at hand, namely, the noise issue, and it’s impact on all of us who ride. And sadly too, their prediction has come true in many cases, I found several articles within just the first hour of researching this issue, on jurisdictions that have enacted noise related ordinances directed against motorcycles while other vehicles remained less regulated. Several sources noted events from the last Sturgis rally, an event noted for it’s tolerance and even open acceptance of the biker crowd. It seems the state and local authorities really cracked down on violators, more so than in previous years and the biggest offence cited and fined was for excessive exhaust noise. As one writer put it, it must have been just like shooting fish in a barrel (for the police).

I have to wonder how many others, like myself, really enjoy hearing those cars with the mega-bass audio systems turned up so loud that our stomachs churn or the sound of trash trucks emptying the dumpster at 6 in the morning? Noise pollution effects everyone. Saying “I’m just doing my thing” just doesn’t cut it, not when “doing your thing” violates others right to peace and quiet, there is no right to make excessive noise! And what about the image that excessively loud motorcycles project? When the actions of others have a negative impact on my rights to enjoy motorcycling, that gets my goat up and it should get yours up too.

According to the Hurt report is was determined that 77% of motorcycle accident hazards come from in front of the rider, while only 3% approach from the rear. What’s interesting here is that motorcycle pipes direct the vast majority of sound backwards where the least danger is, so for loud pipes to be truly effective safety measures they would need to be pointed forward where the greatest danger lies. That doesn’t do much to support the proposition that loud pipes are a safely factor. The other serious problem I have with this supposition is that it is, at best, a secondary safety measure, not a primary or proactive measure. Assuming that the other driver will act with caution once you have identified your presence by the sound of your bike roaring up from behind is foolhardy at best. That’s like assuming that if you were to wear a bright yellow safety vest, or full riding gear, you can relax because now you’re protected! Lets face it, the best protection you have is that 3 pounds of gray matter between your ears, that and a constant awareness of your surrounding, and acting on the supposition that the rest of the motorists in the world are all idiots and its up to you and you alone to ensure your safety on the road. Relying on the other guy to act reasonably or safely just because you’re making more noise than those around you is just asking for trouble!

As Neal Stephenson puts it in ‘Zodiac’ ” First, a word on motorcycle safety:
If you’ve put yourself in a position where someone has to see [hear] you in order for you to be safe — to see [hear] you, and to give a f**k — you’ve already blown it. “. (The words in brackets [] were added by me.)

Interestingly enough too, I found that most motorcyclists with louder than stock pipes, interviewed in the various articles I read on the subject admitted that is was mostly a macho thing. They simply liked the sound of a deep throated exhaust note, it added to the pleasure of the machine for them, very few made any mention of the “safety” issue. So it would seem the true believers in the LPSL crowd are in the vast minority, it may make a great tee shirt slogan, but is ability to hold water is about equal to that of the tee shirt it’s printed on.

Ok, so back to my neighbor and his desire for loud pipes for “safety” reasons. If he wants louder pipes on his machine, more power to him, it’s his bike, and I firmly believe in the principal “It’s your bike, do what you want”. As long as it’s not an ear splitting, glass shattering roar, and he doesn’t fire it up at 3AM and blast me out of bed, fine, have fun with it. He’s young, it’s his first bike and he’s caught up in all that goes with that first chrome and steel love affair. And No, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a nice set of well-tuned pipes, they can add that little something extra to a machine and will undoubtedly catch the occasional eye (or ear) as you go tooling down the roadway. But let’s not kid ourselves that its anything other than an ego thing, plain and simple. Just be honest about it and quit trying to justify it.

Just do it within reason, remember the image you portray is a reflection on all of us, like it or not, and really loud pipes probably do more damage than good and annoying folks accomplishes nothing. Now you may be thinking I have something personal against loud pipes, well let me disabuse you of that notion right here and now. I too happen to like a nice throaty exhaust note as evidenced by my little R600. Several years ago I put a 2-into-1 megaphone style exhaust on her as part of the process of setting her up for running the back roads and mountain passes. I love to “play” with the resonance it produces zipping though the twisties, and I admit that I did it 90% just for the way it enhances the machine’s appearance and the way it sounds. The reduced weight and extra cornering clearance is just an added bonus, but I did it mostly for the sound, and looks, and I readily admit it. Its just plain cool! What its not however is loud to the point of annoying my neighbors or shattering glass, just a nice mellow note that sets it apart from other old bikes.

Sure, it can also be done to increase horsepower, but for many that too is probably just a “justification” and not the real reason. Modern bikes have more than enough power as they come from the factory for almost any rider or riding conditions, some even more than reasonably needed (but that’s just my opinion). Keep in mind, too, that they are designed to run with the specific back pressure created by the stock exhaust. Changing anything with the motor should only be done by someone who knows what they are doing, or you could easily wind up with all sort of problems, such as less power and possible overheating problems, to name a few, and that’s not an opinion, that’s just plan fact. But as for the safety factor, forget it Mac, I ain’t buying that. If my neighbor (or anyone else) wants to talk safety features, I can think of many, many ways that money could be better spent on serious, proven, safely features.

So if you want loud(er) pipes, go ahead put them on, give ‘em nice high polish shine and give that throttle a twist and revel in the sound of that deep, throaty rumble, just don’t try to tell me you’re doing it because “Loud Pipes Save Lives” ‘cause dude, now I know better!

Jeffry L’H. Tank

Back to list of Virginia Wind Articles