In a message entitled "Something We Never Want to Lose" on his company's website, Harley-Davidson Motor Company President and CEO Jim McCaslin tackles the issue of motorcycle noise and the increasing backlash motorcycling is experiencing as the result of loud pipes. Citing a four-fold increase in negative media coverage during the last decade, bans on motorcycles in some communities, attempts to curtail major motorcycle events, anti-tamper legislation, and other limitations of freedom for motorcyclists as the result of complaints about loud pipes, McCaslin says, "We all, every Hog lovin' one of us, must do everything we can to protect our sport and keep it as strong as it is today."
In other words, it's time to pipe down.
This is the second stage of Harley-Davidson's campaign against loud exhaust pipes. Its initial effort last year was directed at and through dealers, with posters and literature that attempted to educate dealers and riders about the negative consequences of loud pipes. Harley-Davidson spokesman Paul James also told Motorcycle Cruiser that during the next few months Harley will cease shipments to dealers of racing exhaust systems that can be fitted to street models. We could no longer find any racing exhaust systems listed on the company's accessory website. However, Harley-Davidson still offers dozens of accessory exhaust systems that are street-legal (and therefore acceptably quiet), including for use in California.
Industry concern over the problem of loud exhaust pipes is nothing new. The American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) has long warned riders that attitudes shaped by complaints about loud pipes frequently compromise the AMA's efforts to battle anti-motorcycling legislation and regulation. That same concern was echoed by the Motorcycle Riders Foundation a few years ago when it adopted the AMA's stance against loud pipes. The Motorcycle Industry Council has conducted anti-noise campaigns for over 30 years.
These days, the loud motorcycle you hear roaring past is likely to be a modified Harley-Davidson. This is somewhat ironic because Harley was among the first motorcycle makers to tackle exhaust noise a century ago. In the early days of internal-combustion vehicles, many vehicles were annoyingly loud as delivered, but the threat of anti-motor-vehicle legislation soon had automakers fitting mufflers to their vehicles. As McCaslin's message points out, quieting motorcycle exhaust pipes posed greater difficulties because there is no room for a bulky muffler on a bike. However, Harley engineered an effective silencer, and the resulting bike became known as The Silent Gray fellow. Its relative quiet contributed to its reputation as an elegant, advanced machine and helped distinguish Harley-Davidson Motor Company from dozens of rival American motorcycle makers.
Changing to an aftermarket exhaust system has become almost a knee-jerk reaction for many cruiser buyers. However, unless labeled as meeting federal and state standards, all of these exhaust systems are illegal and virtually all are illegally loud. There are exceptions, such as systems offered by Harley that meet requirements for all 50 states or all states except California. Exhaust pipes are changed for a variety of reasons. One is the search for performance improvements, although, as McCaslin and the AMA point out, not all deliver—and some increase power in a portion of the power band while reducing it in others. Some motorcycle owners change exhaust pipes to personalize the appearance. And many who modify their bikes' exhaust systems simply want the noise, often for vanity's sake. Some motorcyclists profess to believe that "loud pipes save lives," although research tends to contradict that popular axiom. (Few of those who say they want exhaust noise for safety's sake use other means—such as brightly colored apparel—which have been proven effective.)
Harley-Davidson's current stance actually puts it on the cutting edge of corporate responsibility regarding exhaust-noise. It is the only company that has both taken an anti-noise stance and offers street-legal accessory exhaust systems as an alternative to loud aftermarket pipes. Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki have never offered nor endorsed accessory systems for their cruisers. Both Victory and Yamaha offer exhaust systems that are not illegally loud as "racing" modifications, though no effort is made to qualify customers by asking for racing credentials. You have to find and click on footnote notices on their sites to learn that that the systems are not legal for the street, and the disclaimer page on Yamaha's site was not working when we visited. Neither company offers legal accessory exhausts. We also asked Yamaha if it had any plans to follow Harley-Davidson's lead on this issue, but we had received no reply to our email a few days later.
As the leader in the cruiser market, Harley's public stance on loud exhaust pipes may finally signal a turning point for an issue that continues to put motorcyclists in a very bad light and prompts increasing calls for restrictions on motorcycles and motorcyclists. Though some riders will try to contend that their noise doesn't really bother anybody, that they have some sort of right to annoy everyone they ride past, or that their noise protects them, such arguments have to sound increasingly hollow when the biggest cruiser-motorcycle maker points out that they are actually risking all motorcyclists' freedoms and asks them to "think about the consequences our actions have on others, before others take action against us."
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