I love warm weather and the arrival of spring. But unwelcome visitors are the hundreds of Harley Davidson motorcycles that start noisily plying around Lake Minnetonka. Honda and BMW motorcycles don’t attract the type of riders who want to make as much noise as possible.
A Harley with straight pipes (no muffler) gives off 100 decibels, the same as a car horn at three feet, according to Purdue University. By comparison, an idling car emits 35-45 decibels and in the low 70s at freeway speeds; a Harley out of the factory is 80 decibels. But remember the decibel system is logarithmic. A difference of 10 decibels represents a sound level 10 times as loud.
Bruce Murphy, writing in Urban Milwaukee, notes that for Harley riders, loudness is part of the rebellious thrill of being an outlaw on the road — it’s audio graffiti. As the website The Aging Rebel notes, those modified pipes are an act of righteous opposition to the “noise nuts and dastardly bean counters whose noise and pollution abatement goals are mandated by self righteous and distant bureaucracy.”
Yet the Harley Davidson website shows thin, well-dressed, clean-shaven young millennials on their Harleys. But the Harley “straight piper” we mostly see in Minnesota is portly, tattooed and 51 years of age (the “average,” according to Ad Age).
But in the American “Easy Rider” tradition you can only enjoy the open road on a Harley. And Harleys have their own pilgrimage Mecca, the annual get-together in Sturgis, S.D. (some 600 miles from here). It attracts 500,000 Harleys from around the country. I have been there and it is really an exercise in debauchery and something Harley bikers try to do every year.
Not surprisingly, the highest per capita ownership of Harleys is in South Dakota; Wisconsin is fourth and Minnesota, ninth. And who is dead last? — Washington, D.C.
I don’t have an issue with Harley Davidsons. To be against that company would be to oppose motherhood and apple pie. It’s American, even though all its computer work has been outsourced to India.
Rather, almost every Harley owner customizes with aftermarket straight pipes — i.e., they remove Harley’s muffler to get even a louder sound. An ad from an aftermarket seller of straight pipes explains: “a motorcycle will never sound right without the right exhaust. Here at our shop you will find a great selection of pipes. These pipes are loud.”
Harley’s president laments that the noise is creating a backlash. He cites “a fourfold increase in negative media coverage during the last decade, bans on motorcycles in some communities, efforts to curtail motorcycle events (mini Sturgis’) and anti-tamper legislation.”
So how to quiet excessive Harley noise? Every community already has noise-control ordinances. These were enacted to prevent big semis from “jake braking,” using their engine to slow down. But the noise limits could be applied to motorcycles cruising around Lake Minnetonka or on West River Parkway.
The Facebook website “I hate Harley” warns: “do not approach or attempt to reason with motorcycle riders. When possible take down the license number and call the police.”
In New York, loud motorcycles are subject to a $400 fee. In carefree Arizona, engine noise in excess of 80 decibels brings fines of up to $750. In Chicago it can be $500. So why aren’t cops in Minneapolis enforcing noise laws? They say that they are too busy but there is a bit of hypocrisy involved.
If drivers played earsplitting rap music in their cars in Orono where I live, they would be stopped. But insofar as straight pipe Harley bikers are concerned, it’s let “bikers be bikers.”
John Freivalds lives in Orono.