Women Riders

The Loud Pipes Myth

Written by  May 31, 2010

It is, quite possibly, the most believed myth in all of motorcycling: “Loud pipes save lives.” Get a group of riders together and start them talking, and stories will emerge about how near misses were averted because a driver “heard me coming.” I have heard this so much; I decided to do a little digging and a small experiment.

First, the digging. I could find absolutely no statistics to back the loud pipes claim. None. This is not to say that noise does not figure into preventing collisions, and in fact, it just might, but nothing supports the idea with hard and fast numbers. Anecdotal evidence has its place; however, the number of fatalities continued to rise until 2009, and with the increased sales of sport bikes, which are loud out of the box, and aftermarket accessories like straight pipes, one would have to entertain the small thought that perhaps noise wasn’t helping the situation. And the recent declines have been attributed to a weak economy more than anything having to do with increased noise or safety.

The closest thing to scientific evidence is the Hurt Report, which was published in the 1980s, which stated that, in accidents, “modified” bikes were “overrepresented” and larger tourers, such as Goldwings, were “underrepresented,” This could have something to do with the type of rider as much as any noise, however. The sport bikes are generally purchased by younger, more inexperienced but “invincible” (in thought) riders while larger touring bikes are generally operated by more experienced, older riders. You may see a kid on a Ninja take death-defying risks, but you won’t see those same risks tried with a Road King being ridden by a middle-aged woman.

Next, my experiment: I was having an online “argument” with a proponent of the loud pipes idea, and he had stated that I could hear a bike approaching much like hearing a siren. He went into sound waves and their rate of travel (770 mph). I countered with the fact that sound waves bounce and that they normally cannot precede their source. While technically, sirens do precede their source, their source is designed to do that, and fire engines, cop cars and ambulances never outrun their sound. To say that loud pipes are a legitimate means to safety is to suggest that the sound waves emanating from a pipe can outrun its source. This didn’t make sense to me. I also know that we almost never can tell from where a siren is coming and have to look around to find the accompanying vehicle.

Another matter that came to mind is the sound of a chainsaw in the neighborhood. While we may know who is using it, if we listen to just the sound, we can not tell where it is coming from. Those pesky sound waves just keep bouncing around. And, while there are certainly some loud bikes out there, not many are as loud and constant as that chainsaw.

My experiment was pretty simple. Check to see when I can hear an approaching motorcycle. And if I saw a motorcycle, turn away and check to see if I could hear it clearly with my car windows closed and no radio on. I surprised myself. After a full sunny day of running errands and wistfully looking at all the bikes cruising about, not a single one could be heard until it was within 10 feet of the front of the car. In fact, one daring man on a modified cruiser decided he wanted to be first off the green, came up alongside me at a slow speed and the sight of him startled me. Not the sound, the sight. On the highway, I could not hear the few cruisers that went by in the other lanes; I did, however hear a sport bike tear off the green on the opposite side. His noise would not have countered his high rate of speed, though, and by the time I looked, he was past.

One thing the Hurt Report did state was that the rate of correction in order to avoid a collision is, on average, two seconds. Hearing a bike within ten feet, coupled with a time of two seconds to take evasive action is certainly not enough to save lives.

Finally, one other thought about this perpetual myth: Dependency on it. Those who strongly believe their loud pipes are saving their lives also depend too strongly on that belief as if it was their magic bubble. They forego the protective gear in favor of shorts and old tennis shoes, take unnecessary risks like weaving through heavy traffic and love to twist the throttle at stoplights, both startling and angering motorists in the mistaken belief that their sound will keep them safe.

It is important to understand that one thing alone, be it a helmet, body armor or loud pipes, is not going to provide the protection a biker needs. In addition to safety gear and a safe bike, an aware rider is her own best protection. We can’t allow myths to rule over our senses, and that includes common sense.

By Louise Reeves

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