by Thomas Day
A long while back, I wrote a rant titled “Rolling Morons” which attracted a fair amount of attention. Believe it or not, your opinions were spread equally between agreement and angry outrage. You defended the magically traffic-shielding powers of loud exhaust pipes, and expressed concern that obnoxious motorcycles might spell the end of street legal motorcycling. Both arguments were, sometimes, well defended. A couple of writers really entertained me with their “logic.” One reader wrote that “luck” has as much to do with safe riding as does skill, training, or any other rider/motorcycle characteristic. He argued that his loud pipes increase his chances of staying lucky.
I don’t want to disrespect luck. It wouldn’t be lucky. Anyone who survived the trip from sperm to egg to birth is pretty lucky. Escaping the hospital undamaged, surviving youth, and becoming an adult without loss of limb, STDs, or jail time is exponentially lucky. If you’re really lucky, not only will you have that kind of luck on your shoulder, your kids and grandkids will be equally lucky.
Being born in a semi-democratic, moderately-industrialized country, amid a world of unlucky folks who will never experience that luxury, is an incredible luck of the draw. Knock on wood, toss salt over your shoulder, burn a candle or a goat for the gods of your choice, or do anything else that you believe increases your odds of maintaining your lucky streak. I have no problem understanding doing whatever needs to be done to show gratitude for that kind of good fortune.
Some things are less likely to produce increased luck. And luck has limitations. You have to buy a lottery ticket before you have much chance of winning the lottery. You have to be in the right place, at the right time, for opportunity to strike: destiny won’t wait for you to pry yourself away from the remote control and up from the couch. Survival depends on planning, practicing good habits, and execution of those habits when it counts. Every successful parent knows that. Most long-term, high-mileage motorcyclists are more likely to tell stories of how he or she avoided a catastrophe with skill or highway paranoia, than by mindless luck.
I hear about this luck thing all the time from my MSF Basic Riding and Experienced Rider students. Many of them have all sorts of bad luck stories to tell. It must be part of our “victim” culture. Fate conspires against us and we’re thoughtlessly tossed into the fires of misfortune. These are the kinds of tales of unlucky woe I’ve heard/witnessed/experienced:
1. A little old lady drives her Buick into an intersection and a biker is unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
2. Showing off for his passenger girlfriend, a backwards-baseball-cap-boy overshoots a rural curve, swiping an oncoming bike, and suffering terrible injuries and a permanent lisp and disability. The passenger dies from her injuries before help arrives.
3. A rider on a weekend cruise crests a hill to find a tractor towing a hay bailer taking up most of both lanes. The biker slams into the back of the bailer, barely having touched his brakes before inhaling his last breath.
4. A yuppie in a Beemer overtaxes his abilities sucking on Starbucks, babbling into a cell phone, and attempting to manage freeway traffic. He fails at the most important of his tasks and wanders into an adjacent lane, nearly side-swiping a biker. The “ride free” helmet-less, protective-gear-less motorcyclist is severely injured when he crashes in the median ditch during an attempt to avoid being hit by the Beemer bozo.
5. A new rider crashes on a curve when a brand new tire failed on her brand new bike. She slides, head-on, into oncoming traffic and is killed.
6. A rider slides to a barely-controlled stop, when a front wheel bearing seizes, after recently performing a front-to-back bike inspection a couple of days earlier.
7. A rider is rear-ended by a following car when that cage-dwelling cell phone addict forgets her primary task in stop-and-go freeway traffic and starts a traffic chain-reaction. The biker is severely injured, being crushed between the cell-phoner and preceding vehicles.
8. A rider was squashed by a concrete bridge section that tipped off of a semi-trailer in heavy freeway traffic.
Some of you might describe all of these as bad luck events, right? Some of us would be skeptical. I think the events in the first four scenarios are no more than 10% bad luck and no less than 90% rider inattention and inability. A chunk of the second group, five through seven, are pretty close to pure bad luck, but there are some aspects of those crashes the biker could have controlled or moderated. The eighth event is about as bad as luck gets.
I’m totally unconvinced that any passive good luck charm, like loud pipes, would have any effect on any of these scenarios or any other reasonable traffic situation. I am convinced, from personal experience and science, that those pipes could have the opposite, crash-inducing, effect. First, noise is fatiguing, it wears you down, it dilutes your attention, it even inhibits your ability to make decisions. Look it up. Noise pollution has almost as many negative symptoms as air pollution. The only time I’ve ever had to take nap breaks on a long ride was when I brought my “new” SV home from Cleveland. As soon as I was able, I replaced the Two Brothers pipe with the stock unit and solved that problem. Of course, when your exhaust note is the only thing you can hear, other hazards are obscured. I’m unconvinced that the minor attention you generate is worth the major inattention you create in yourself.
Noise is fatiguing. Noise irritates other road users and might make them tense, aggressive, or inattentive. Sudden noises can startle other drivers, causing them to participate in a panic reaction, which is always a bad thing. Unnecessary noise is, obviously, pointless urban and rural environmental pollution. Most of all, if loud pipes on a bike can be argued to make motorcyclists safer, what keeps small cage owners from using the same argument for their protection from larger vehicles? Following them will be SUVs and truckers wanting the same “protection?” Once you start that ball rolling, all you’ve done is make the highways a massive noise pollution source and a rational target for federal, state, and local regulation. Do you really want to be responsible for the kind of reaction that most likely will result in a lot of problems for all motorcyclists, simply because you imagine that a loud exhaust makes you feel lucky?