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More sinned against than sinning?

Do loud pipes save lives? Mike Waters tries to make sense of the eternal controversy around motorcycle noise…

The big, ugly, long-running debate over motorcycle noise is back and, as with so many things these days, we can blame COVID-19.

Traffic dropped sharply when the first lockdown was brought in, so the sound of motorcycles stood out instead of blending in and complaints surged. People even contacted the British Motorcyclists Federation to complain, although precisely what they were expecting the BMF to do is a bit of a mystery.

But these complaints can’t just be dismissed, because complainers are also voters and a big enough number of voters tends to get the attention of politicians. Moves have already been made to ban motorcycles from certain roads in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria to curb what is claimed to be a rampant motorcycle noise problem and it’s entirely possible to imagine this approach being tried here too.

To prevent that, we need to work out what to do and that means we have a mess to untangle. Just what is the sound of everyday life and what is a nuisance? Where’s the dividing line between the two? Is there one?

The best place to begin is with the understanding that motorcycle noise is not a straightforward matter. Worse, this is an issue where too many tempers have been lost, too many nerves have been touched and emotion has taken over from reason in too many cases. Any progress will have to be made uphill. There is a shortage of hard science and what little there is isn’t always clear cut. In short, there are no nice, neat answers here − if there were, someone would have already found them years ago.

There is also a problem of the whole thing becoming adversarial rather than a matter of give and take and of demonising stereotypes taking over from real human beings. The depressingly common presumption that every biker is an antisocial lout who doesn’t care about the havoc they leave in their wake is as flat-out wrong as it is flagrantly unfair. On the reverse of that, assuming that everyone who objects to motorcycle noise is a soulless killjoy doing it just to gratify a victim complex also does more harm than good. No amount of evidence or persuasion will be enough for some people, true, but it is still possible for bikers to get a fair hearing or even sincere support.

To do that, it can and must be admitted that excessive noise – more on that careful wording in a moment – can cause serious harm and that some complaints do indeed have right on their side. In fact, noise pollution causes misery and death. In physical terms, it has been proven to cause hearing damage or outright loss, hypertension, coronary artery disease and diabetes and increases the risk of strokes. In psychological terms, it causes stress that loops right back into causing or exacerbating physical problems and often manifests as depression, anxiety and insomnia. It has even been used as a torture technique that shatters minds without leaving incriminating marks.

But the word ‘excessive’ was the crucial one. That’s why there are already laws to regulate noise levels to keep them on the right side of what is safe and reasonable. Official powers to issue noise abatement and anti-social behaviour orders exist, as do legal avenues to seize things like misused musical equipment. In the specific case of motorcycles, manufacturers already design machines to stick to a legal level of sound and fitting an unsanctioned exhaust which gives off too much noise is grounds for an immediate MOT failure.

It might not be perfect, but the general official intention is to respect the activity of people just going about their days or using their property in a responsible manner. This is what the overwhelming majority of bikers already do and always have done too.

But there are three major problems with this status quo for bikers. The first is that some people break the law – fitting aftermarket parts that are switched before testing or simply evading testing altogether are hardly impossible.

The second is enforcement, because the police have far more urgent claims on their attention than inspecting every motorcycle exhaust in the country, and this means anything illegal usually doesn’t get dealt with quickly or even at all. In both cases, all it takes is one person doing the wrong thing to get everyone else unfairly tarred with the same brush.

The third and most complicated is that something legal can still be excessive because so much depends on context. What is perfectly reasonable at midday may be considered unreasonable at midnight, but what’s the alternative if that is when a commuter has to travel for a night shift? Public transport that might not exist or a car, both of which would also make a noise? And then there is the question of frequency. A single biker riding past a home at a legal speed and in a responsible manner is just an ordinary part of modern life, but a thousand doing the exact same thing might cause distress even if no one individual is doing anything illegal or even anything wrong. A pebble isn’t a problem, but an avalanche is.

How on earth can any test, regulation or law account for every possible combination of circumstances without becoming an unwieldy farce? Well, official responses to hopelessly complicated situations like this usually tend towards either just ignoring them or heavy-handed blanket responses that sweep up the innocent along with the guilty. That’s why the threat of bans, just like those from the start of this article, looms large. Given sufficient provocation – justified or not – the official stance could easily switch from mostly benign neglect to active targeting.

In truth, ‘motorcycle noise’ is the wrong term to use. This issue is really a witch’s brew of a vast number of factors such as being a rational defensive road user who is attempting to signal their presence (more on the ‘Do loud pipes save lives?’ question below), genuine anti-social behaviour, how recently any number of parts in any number of machines have been maintained and replaced, imperfect soundproofing, the combined consequences of centuries of road and town planning, inadequate public transport provision at unsociable hours, flukes of acoustics, the unpredictable role of the weather and simple bad luck that just happens to sometimes have motorcycles as a common point. If motorcycles vanished from the world tomorrow, car, van, bus and lorry drivers would still go on disrupting the silence just as much.

The owner’s fundamental freedom to use their own property in the manner they judge appropriate within reason works both ways. Sometimes that means enjoying the freedom of the road on a motorcycle. Sometimes that means wanting to avoid being disturbed in your own home. It is when these positions are taken to extremes or impinge on others that problems arise. Taking the absolute attitude of “I paid for it, I’ll do whatever the hell I like with it” (a quote lifted from a previous debate about noise on the BMF’s Facebook page, incidentally) is no better than calls to crush all bikes. A little mutual respect goes a long way.

Time for an anecdote. When I was a kid, a bloke a couple of streets over from us had a bike that he loved to bits. The exact make and model are long lost to history, but hindsight tells me it was a real heavyweight of a tourer. Every Sunday morning, he’d fire it up and leave it running. Sound bounces off brick pretty well, so you damn well knew when he did and hundreds of people trying to have a quiet lie-in got to listen to that instead. Now, here’s the philosophical conundrum: does this one bloke’s happiness at the sound of his beloved bike count for more or less than everyone else’s combined unhappiness at having their Sunday morning disturbed?

Trick question. This isn’t about point-scoring or trying to hammer everyone into some kind of binary right/wrong classification; this is about living alongside one another in today’s world. So many minds are already made up because of the actions of the irresponsible few, which is why the best way to protect biking and the freedom to ride is by being responsible, setting an example and encouraging responsibility in others to prevent any more damage being done and perhaps changing minds too. A good sense of balance is an invaluable skill for a biker, as I’m sure we all know, so this is just a slightly different way to apply the basic principle.

Do loud pipes save lives?

Many a biker has heard or said the familiar words “Loud pipes save lives!” and the internet is awash with anecdotal accounts, but do they? Fortunately, the Federation of European Motorcyclists’ Associations (FEMA), of which the BMF is a member, has examined this very question.

In an article on FEMA’s website, Chloé Gaillard noted: “According to the latest accident report (2018) from the French National Inter-ministerial Road Safety Observatory (ONISR), 44% of motorcyclists involved in fatal accidents are not responsible. In 63% of these cases, the motorcycle was simply not detected by other vehicles.”

It is reasonable to presume that other road users simply knowing a motorcyclist is there would help reduce the number of fatal accidents and exhaust noise is indeed an option there. But is exhaust noise the only way or the best way to be detected?

“Vehicle exhausts, motorcycle mufflers included, are installed at the rear, as everyone knows. A motorcycle can therefore be heard as it passes and downstream – unlike the vehicles of firefighters and law enforcement officers who are equipped with sirens at the front, so as to be heard when they pass to navigate their way through traffic. Let’s say it again: the noise follows the bike but does not precede it.”

If your backwards-facing exhaust alone probably won’t be enough to get you noticed by other road users from any angle other than from behind you, what can help?

“A few customary precautions could save you: an efficient lighting system, colourful equipment, defensive riding, et cetera. Not to mention, when necessary, the use of the horn – if it is placed towards the front and therefore emits forward, it is good for warning others.”

So there we have it. The answer to the question ‘Do loud pipes save lives?’ is probably somewhere between ‘sometimes’ and ‘maybe’ at most. They are an option, but they are flawed and they aren’t the best or only option. It’s better to use the horn when you need it rather than fit aftermarket pipes that are loud all the time.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 edition of BMF Motorcycle Rider.

Top photograph by Wim Taal