The Last Word On Loud Pipes - Tech Matters

Some months back I wrote a column titled "Bike Myths." As columns go "Myths" was relatively inoffensive and for the most part dealt with things like whether high-octane gas provides more horsepower than regular (it doesn't). However, one of the myths I addressed, "Loud pipes save lives," generated enough controversy that it caused me to look long and hard at what I'd written.

For those of you who didn't read it, my argument was that while loud pipes do a lot of things, they don't save lives. I felt so strongly about it that I made the following challenge: "Prove to me using empirical scientific data that loud pipes save lives, and I'll retract my position and print a public apology."

Since I'd never seen a shred of scientific evidence to support the "loud pipes save lives" argument I was fairly certain that I wouldn't be dining on my words anytime soon. Then I received a letter from a reader who asked one simple question: "Where's your proof that loud pipes don't save lives?"

Erp, well, because bluster usually works well for me I suggested the respondent read through several motorcycle accident studies, which off the top of my head I figured would surely support my position. They didn't, and in no uncertain terms he let me know it.

Over the next few days we went back and forth, exchanging e-mails. His position, which was presented in an entirely reasonable and gentlemanly manner, was that regardless of what I might believe, unless I could prove that quiet pipes prevented accidents, I had no right to demand the same burden of proof from those who felt the opposite. I should also point out that-to his credit-his argument centered on the burden-of-proof issue. It never sidetracked onto things like whether motorcycles should be held to different noise standards than cars or whether running a loud pipe was a rider's right, which I greatly appreciated.

After reading through every single motorcycle accident report I could find I had to admit that not one of them drew any sort of definitive correlation between a motorcycle's noise level and the likelihood of its being in an accident. The closest thing I found on the subject was in the "Hurt Report," which determined that modified motorcycles were overrepresented in the accident column and that large touring bikes like Gold Wings were underrepresented.

The problem is that it's easy to read more into those statistics than the author intended. Granted, choppers and cafe racers (and now some sportbikes) often run loud pipes, but extrapolating that into something further than a few general comments on why they may be involved in more accidents than any bone-stock bike is foolish and, yes, a little irresponsible.

The bottom line is that the reader is right and I'm wrong, and until someone comes up with a definitive study that resolves the issue one way or another I've got no right to expect proof from one side without holding the other side to the same standard. My guess is that no one is going to come up with such a study, in part because those in the field of motorcycle safety research are underfunded, overworked and have larger fish to fry. I'd also like to point out what most of us already know: The general public dislikes wickedly loud motorcycles on principle. I shudder to think how they and our elected legislators would react if there was ever a study that proved the only way to make a motorcycle safe was to install a loud pipe.

So here's my final word on the subject of loud pipes. First, I'm by no means against aftermarket pipes. What I'm against are pipes so loud they rattle your windows, shatter your eardrums and drown out jackhammers at idle. Pipes like that are no good for you, your motorcycle or motorcycling as a whole.

Second, I have serious issues with people who insist they have some sort of innate right to run whatever pipes they like regardless of the problems they create. Sorry, folks, you're subject to the same laws of the land as everyone else. If you want to run a loud pipe that's fine, but don't expect any sympathy from me when you get written up. I'll save my mercy for the guy on the stock bike who gets hassled because some town enacted antimotorcycle legislation after the locals had one too many earfuls of loud pipes. Third, if you think loud pipes save lives that's your business; I just don't happen to feel that way. But since I've got no hard evidence to support either contention you'll hear no more from me on the subject until I do.