MILWAUKEE Cities from New York to Denver are giving motorcyclists the silent treatment.
And that worries riders rights groups, which fear that a wave of ordinances aimed at muffling Harley-Davidsons, hushing Hondas and stifling Suzukis will create a confusing patchwork of laws that motorcyclists won’t be able to navigate. The motorcycle industry is concerned it could turn these frustrated riders away.
“From our perspective, this creates enormous problems for us because people notice the one motorcycle that makes a lot of noise,” said Bill Wood, spokesman for the American Motorcyclist Association. “They don’t notice the 50 that pass that don’t. So there’s a perception that motorcycles are noisy.”
Ordinances come in many forms. Some are against certain types of products — like mufflers that would rattle the apples off trees — while others are aimed more at the intent of the driver, who may want to turn some heads or rile the neighbors on a Sunday afternoon.
As of July 1, riders in New York City are subject to a minimum $440 fine for having a muffler or exhaust system that can be heard within 200 feet.
In Lancaster, Pa., starting this month riders — and all motor vehicle drivers — could be ticketed for drawing attention to themselves, whether by creating too much noise by revving their engines or doing hard accelerations. Tickets start at $150.
As of July 1, motorcyclists in Denver could be ticketed $500 for putting mufflers on their bikes made by someone other than the original manufacturer, if the bike is 25 years old or less. These so-called after-market products can be louder than their manufacturer-made counterparts.
Denver’s plan is unique because it targets the after-market equipment. Wood said it limits riders’ freedom to choose what products to use. Many motorcyclists who need to replace parts use these products, rather than go to a dealer, which can be more expensive, Wood said.
Ordinances restricting motorcycle noise have been around for years. The American Motorcyclist Association does not track the numbers of such ordinances and often only hears about them just as they’re being passed, Wood said.
The association would rather see an ordinance that targets all vehicles or uses a decibel test to measure actual noise output.
The changes leave riders confused, said Pamela Amette, vice president of the Motorcycle Industry Council, the industry’s trade group. Enforcement can be subjective, too. The council is working with the American Society of Engineers to establish a sound test that would help equalize enforcement.
A similar test has been set for off-road bikes, and several states have adopted it, Amette said. The group hopes to have the test ready next year. The new tests could even heighten demand for quieter systems, she said, because riders will know what they need.
“Unless it’s very precise and adopted uniformly, then it’s just really not fair to the riders and to the industry,” Amette said.
The stakes for the industry are big. There were 1.1 million new motorcycles sold for $9.8 billion in 2005, the most recent year available, the council said. Parts, including those after-market mufflers, accessories and riding apparel, were an additional $2.8 billion.
“I think more and more people are putting pressure on communities,” said Ted Rueter, director of Noise Free America, based in Madison, Wis. “That fact that Denver has done so is going to give a lot of encouragement to people who love peace and quiet.”
Harley-Davidson Inc., which tried in the 1990s to trademark its products’ distinctive rumble, is monitoring the growth of anti-noise ordinances that target motorcyclists, said Rebecca Bortner, a Harley spokeswoman.
The Milwaukee-based motorcycle maker thinks the issue is less about the equipment and more about what riders do with it. The company asked its dealers a few years ago to stop carrying the loudest of after-market mufflers, straight unmuffled pipes, Bortner said.
All motorcycles sold for road use in the United States are subject to federal noise laws keeping them within a certain range of decibels, below 80 decibels from 50 feet away, said the industry council’s Amette. A good rule of thumb is that your average motorcycle — as approved by government standards — should hum like a sewing machine, she said.
But some bikes are louder. That happens when bikers buy after-market equipment, either for the sound or for more heightened performance.