Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Unpopular Opinions: Sound? Off.

"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts."
—Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Talking to motorcyclists about loud pipes is like bringing up the subject of gun control at an NRA meeting. The argument—not the discussion, mind you, but the argument—gets emotional before anyone has the chance to think calmly about the facts of the issue, if indeed anyone ever has.

It’s worth noting that both motorcyclists and gun owners hotly defend their respective positions on the basis of personal freedom, a cherished American birthright, ride free or die, cold dead hands, blah blah blah.

Of the two groups, gun owners are on far more solid ground, thanks to the Second Amendment, which—although grammatically tortuous and speckled with extra commas that still leave its original meaning open to interpretation—has withstood all attempts to neuter it.

The personal-freedom rationale for putting loud pipes on a motorcycle is hogwash. I can't find anything in the Constitution about the right to be a pain in the ass. Federal law prohibits fitting any non-approved exhaust system to a motorcycle that’s ridden on the street. The only reason people get away with it so often is the U.S. has no national police force, and state and local law enforcement agencies have no authority to enforce federal laws. They can, however, issue citations for violations of state and local noise limits.

But as long as you’re prudent with the throttle, you probably won’t get caught. Many riders take this as permission to gut their pipes and ride loud and proud. They’re not totally without shame, though, because they’ve come up with a noble-sounding justification for this: Loud pipes save lives.

The theory is that car drivers—you know, those goobers with the cell phones pasted to their ears, the screaming kids in the back seat, and the stereo turned up loud enough to shatter the windows—will hear motorcycles even if they don’t see them, and not run them off the road while reaching into the backseat to give little Timmy a good smack.

The emotional appeal of this argument is undeniable. Most accidents involving a car and a bike turn out to be the car’s fault. It’s not unusual to hear of the car driver in such cases getting a small fine, and the bike rider needing years of physical therapy to walk again. All of us who ride have had days where it seemed like we had targets on our backs, and every car on the road had crosshairs for a hood ornament.

The problem is the claim that loud pipes saves lives doesn’t hold water. There’s no objective, peer-reviewed study that I’m aware of that shows they do, and no thinking person should be convinced by the hand-me-down evidence (“A friend of a friend says he knew a guy who...”) loud-pipe advocates so often resort to.

It’s also notoriously difficult to prove a negative. If something happens, like a car hitting a motorcycle, it’s often possible to work back from the point of impact, reconstruct the series of events that led up to it, and figure out why it happened.

But if an oncoming car fails to turn in front of you, what’s the reason? What prevented that? Your headlight? Your brightly colored riding gear? Your loud pipes? The fact that the car driver was paying attention to traffic and saw you coming?

Another problem with depending on loud pipes for protection from cars is it relies on someone else—the driver—caring enough about your safety and well-being to react, and react properly, and react in time. By subscribing to the loud-pipe method of non-defensive driving, motorcyclists place their safety in the hands of the very people they don’t trust not to run them off the road or turn in front of them, and who prompted them to buy loud pipes in the first place.

This passive strategy also assumes drivers are actually paying attention to the sounds outside their cars. Ask any firefighter or cop or paramedic how often cars fail to pull over to the curb in response to a fire truck or ambulance coming up behind them with the siren wailing and the light bar flashing. Do you really think a set of loud pipes is going to work any better?

Then there are the broader social issues. Loud pipes piss off non-riders. That’s indisputable. And they’re pissing off an increasing number of riders, too, who find their welcome less warm at events where the local cops conduct mass sound checks, corralling everything from Harleys with straight pipes to BMWs with catalytic converters; in urban areas where motorcyclists’ downtown access is restricted to certain hours, or prohibited altogether; and in national parks where the only kind of rolling thunder anyone wants to hear precedes the storm blowing in off the mountain.

In response to some of the laws being contemplated to silence noisy motorcycles, biker’s rights groups, including the AMA, say it’s unfair to target bikes when some trucks and buses make just as much, if not more, noise. They also point out that no one stops car drivers from installing non-compliant replacement mufflers and exhaust systems when the stock ones on their cars break or wear out.

But the non-riding public isn’t complaining about trucks and buses as often as it is about motorcycles. And there aren’t an awful lot of people putting straight pipes on 10-year-old Toyotas and then driving around town goosing the throttle at stoplights.

Is it fair to single out bikes? No. Is it happening anyway? Yes. Can “they” go ahead and pass laws against loud bikes—maybe against all motorcycles—if they want to? Yes. Is that fair? No.

So what do we do?

We start by getting real.

Let's say there are bears—big, hungry, vicious ones—in the city park. They shouldn't be there, maybe there's even a law against bears being in the park, but they're there anyway, and everybody knows it.

Now, anybody with a lick of sense will stay out of the park. Some people, however, will get all indignant about the situation, and puff up their chests and go marching into the park anyway, loudly insisting it's their right to do so. And they'll get eaten by the bears. They'll damn well deserve it, too.

Just as there is sometimes a difference between what's legal and what's right, there's often a huge gap between the way the world is supposed to work and the way it really does. The trick is to recognize the difference, and act accordingly. Those who can't or won't will get eaten by the bears.

Whatever we motorcyclists do about loud pipes and the corrosive effect they have on the relationship between motorcyclists and the rest of society, we need to do it ourselves, and soon.

Because if we don’t, the bears will do it for us.

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