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"What's all the Noise About?"

Allan Johnson, Member #674 | Published on 8/1/2019

When I was very young, riddles were all the rage for a time and one of the few I remember was “What noise annoys an oyster?”
This was a great puzzle to me, since I knew that oysters had no ears, so how could they hear?
The trick answer was, “A noisy noise annoys an oyster!” Now Wheels Editor Mark Richardson, even though he is a Harley-Davidson rider and not an oyster, was annoyed by too noisy a motorcycle at his local watering-hole. He wrote about it.
Then Wheels published a “Guest Opinion” by John Johnson Jr., a staff writer with the Los Angeles Times entitled, “Tough to limit motorcycle noise”.
Another reader chimed in with calling the cops to crack down on “Harley thunder”. This aroused Dustin Woods, another reader ,to rise to the defense of Harley-Davidson and suggest that the reader “move (to a location with no internal combustion engines) and take your soap box with you.”
And so the debate rages on.

Good luck to both Mark and John in mounting a crusade for less noise from today’s
motorcycles, but I will expect it to fail as miserably as all the previous campaigns for silent
The fact is that the noise of our motorized transportation is the sound of the 19th and 20th centuries – and it is likely to be the sound of our present century for at least a goodly part of it. We can rave on to the newspapers when the young neighbor down the street guns his “rice-racer” cannon-exhaust- equipped Honda sportbike on his way to work at 5 am, rattling our windows and banishing sleep – but we probably did that in our youth. Except it would have been a 3-cylinder 2-stroke Kawasaki – or a Manx Norton with racing pipes, on which we rode as we headed off to “the salt mines.”
Transportation noise had been with us for at least 2000 years, since a sleep-deprived Roman Emperor banned chariots and wagons from the night-time streets of Rome.
The motorcycle noise “problem” has been with us for well over a hundred years. Early bikes had a “cut-out” on the exhaust pipe, which bypassed the silencer, to allow easier starting. It was also useful to frighten off dogs which often ran out onto the road to try and bite the rider. As early as 1908, motorcycling manuals were warning against opening the cut-out and increasing the exhaust noise, thereby frightening horses and pedestrians and invoking the wrath of the law. And in the same era racing cars and motorcycles at the famous British Brooklands race track were required to use special silencers. The instruction book for my 1938 motorcycle (one of the quietest – and fastest – bikes
then in production, states “DO NOT race the engine in neutral, violently accelerate from a standstill, or drive at full throttle when in a residential district. Any motorcycle, or any motor vehicle when so driven creates abnormal noise and is calculated to cause annoyance to the population in general.” The plea fell on deaf ears.
By the 1970s our off-road motorcycle community was suffering loss of riding areas through
closures due to noise objections. The campaign to convince dirt-bikers to silence their bikes had the slogan “Less sound – More Ground” some riders listened – too many didn’t. In Ontario, the motorcycling organizations such as the Federation of Trail Riders and the Canadian Motorcycle Association which are involved in off-road events such as enduros and trail rides have recently brought in pre-ride sound test requirements. Your bike must be no louder than 94 decibels at 50 cm distance from the tailpipe, or you don’t ride. It seems to be working.
It is a fact that the off-road bikes of today, even when silenced to the 94 decibel standard, have more power than the un-muffled dirt bikes of the past.
But to-day, the noise “problem” is basically one of a lack of consideration of others by the
manufacturers, purchasers and users of powered equipment, be it vacuum cleaners, leaf blowers, garbage trucks, bulldozers, pile drivers, chain saws, cars, trucks or motorcycles.
More stringent government regulation and in some cases progressive action by manufacturers has given us quieter but powerful machines of all types – even cars and motorcycles. But, particularly, with motorcycles, and to a lesser extent with cars and trucks, the manufacturers are aware that consumers want the sound of a powerful engine, as well as the performance. And so, for as long as I can remember, the aftermarket “custom” accessory industry (including some manufacturers) have catered to these sound loving consumers by providing “racing” equipment, “off-road” equipment, and “upgrade”
equipment, which features less restrictive exhaust systems. The current catalogs of these firms are filled with performance-enhancing exhaust systems which make money for the industry and cause annoyance to public when large throttle opening are used in populated areas.
And such exhaust systems have become particularly popular with the custom cruiser motorcycle riders. A “loudest bike” contest found 16 of 20 street bikes tested with a sound level from 100 up to 123 decibels, averaging 103 decibels. All should have registered no more than 80 decibels. It is obvious that there is a sense of achievement amongst some of these riders - they must be loud, they must be noticed, they must be “somebody.”
There are places, areas and roads, in Canada where motorcycles are prohibited, chiefly because of the noise and resulting disturbance they make. Municipalities are increasingly regulating all forms of noise, and motorcycle noise is increasingly “on the radar” of authorities. This is mainly because, to most people, motorcycles are not essential or even useful transportation, they are just recreational toys, unnecessary to society.
I like to ride my motorcycles, and have done so for over half a century. I like the sound that mine make when I ride them – it’s part of the attraction of riding. But, I like to have good neighbors too, and in the small Ontario town where I live there is little background noise to mask the sound of a motorcycle. Still my neighbor lived beside me for nearly a year before he realized that I rode a motorcycle. He could not, however, fail to notice the motorcyclist who lives two blocks away and whose Harley announces departures and arrival with much roaring and commotion. Such inconsiderate souls will eventually move on to some other form of recreation when motorcycles are banned, cursing the interference of Big Brother government as “taking all the fun out of life.

Allan Johnson can be contacted at

P.O. Box 663, HUNTSVILLE, AL 35804