Rolling Morons

by Thomas Day

A couple of weeks into the summer I found myself stuck in a traffic lane, waiting my turn, at the freeway entrance light. From behind me, I heard a loud, gurgling engine note and thought, “come on light, change.” But the drivers in front of me were busy yakking on the phone, checking themselves out in their rearview mirrors, and chasing their lattes from cup-holder to cup-holder. Soon the noisemaker vehicle was beside me and I was surprised to find that it was a huge, double-cab American pickup with pipes the size of Los Angeles solid waste vents and “Loud Pipes Save Lives” stenciled from the front to the rear bumper.

So, it’s come to this. Even with 3 tons of iron and a football field of crumple-zone between the sole occupant of this hippo-mobile and whatever might pose a threat; this backwards-baseball cap boy still needed the mythical security of noise to “protect” him from stationary vehicles. Americans are passing from timid, to fantastically wimpy. What loud pipes say is “I need passive protection from other drivers because I’m too unskilled to take care of myself. I need to mechanically scream mayday, mayday, make way for a runaway vehicle. If this doesn’t save my ass, my ass is toast.”

Every moron in every kind of vehicle who possesses minimal driving skills and a total lack of common sense, is protecting himself with a moving noisemaker while civilized, competent citizens are suffering hearing damage to keep these idiots alive. What kind of sense does that make? At what point does law enforcement finally do its job and enforce the laws regulating the amount of noise a legal vehicle can emit? 

In the 1950s, Cyril Kornbluth wrote a short SciFi story titled, Marching Morons. The author’s premise was that our cradle-to-grave social net would allow humans to selectively breed into a species that will be “99.999% dumb.” In that incredibly dull-witted future, what passed for personal transportation vehicles had “swept-back lines, deep-drawn compound curves, kilograms of chrome” with an ignition sound effect “like lighting a blow-torch as big as a silo” making “a great voo-oo-ooom!” cruising note. They also moved at a depressingly slow, but safe, speed and were controlled by follow-the-wire guidance systems. Other fine features of Kornbluth’s future vehicles were cement-barrier-lined “freeways” that kept futuristic fools from careening into opposite traffic lanes (similar to I694 west of the Mississippi) and speedometers that indicated 250kph while the vehicle topped out at an actual 50kph. Obvious aspects of current life predicted by Kornbluth were impossibly stupid politicians, sensationalist news programs that catered to dumb-as-a-post viewers, pandering and patronizing and incomprehensible “lifestyle” radio and television advertisements, and easy access to state-sponsored gambling contests. Between Orwell’s 1984 and Kornbluth’s “Marching Morons,” I think we’ve seen the future and we are in it.

At any speed beyond a few miles per hour, the majority of the noise is being projected behind the vehicle. The folks noisy pipes are warning off are the ones behind the vehicle. If your riding skills are so minimal that you’d risk the right to ride for that tiny piece of protection, you might want to consider exchanging your cruiser for a good collection of video games. You are clearly too dumb to ride (indicated as TDTR from this point until further notice).

A few years back, I could have pointed to one well-known motorcycle manufacturer for evidence that the species is in decline. Today, “swept-back lines, deep-drawn compound curves, kilograms of chrome” are predominant in every manufacturer’s product line. Instead of “a great voo-oo-ooom!” we have 100+ decibels of potato-potato noises, but how could a 1950’s science fiction writer have predicted that we’d have decided that two cylinders are better than sixteen? (Was Orwell hinting at that in Animal Farm?)

Last summer, I had the displeasure of conducting a riding course next to the final moments of a large motorcycle rally. The awards presentation ended with a huge daytime fireworks display that made the invasion of Iraq seem muted, but that was just the introduction to Big Noise. When several hundred motorcycles fired up, Minnesota’s California immigrants ran for the shelter of earthquake-proof structures and birds took flight all across the Midwest. I couldn’t find enough fingers to plug my ears.

It wasn’t just exhaust noise, either. The big bike touring crowd has added a second level of noise pollution to motorcycling; public address systems. It’s possible that what I heard were speaker phones connected to Gold Wing stereo systems, but it’s hard to understand why radio waves would be in the signal path of anything that noisy. Imagine seventy 125 dB fairing-mounted stereos blasting “can you hear me now?” and you’ll be in the midst of that experience. The sounds made by an airplane crashing into a talking toy factory would be music compared to the racket made by this group of motorcyclists. I was subjected to a dozen inane conversations at a sound pressure level that would embarrass Led Zeppelin. One more reason to hate motorcycles; just what the world needs. TDTR.

When I first started racing motorcycles, I rode a 1963 Aermacchi/Harley Sprint with a straight pipe, no suspension, and enough unsprung mass to alter the earth’s spin. For a half-season, the Sprint was almost competitive, before the Spanish two-strokes appeared and dusted my ass into premature retirement. I wasted a few years getting used to the sound of two-strokes and return to riding competitively. Since then, a motorcycle’s noise output has been a non-existent component in my decision-making process. Not because I learned to love the ring-a-ding of a two-stroke (I did), but because the exhaust note is a pointless aspect of motorcycle performance, unless it’s so obnoxious that it attracts negative attention.

A fair number of riders are learning that loud pipes make enemies for motorcycling and are costing us the privileges of access. A while back, New Hampshire passed a noise bill that is being considered by other states A section of that bill states:

“III. No person shall modify the exhaust system of a motor vehicle in any manner [which will amplify or increase the noise emitted above that emitted by the original muffler installed in the vehicle and such original muffler shall comply with all the requirements of this section] so that the exhaust system emits noise in excess of 95 decibels as measured by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) standard J1169 (May 1998) . . .”

Albuquerque, New Mexico enacted local regulations targeting motorcycle exhaust systems. It gets worse. This legislation also states that the allowable dB (decibel level) “applies to the total sound from a vehicle or a combination of vehicles and shall be construed as limited or precluding the enforcement of any other provision in this article relating to motor vehicle mufflers for noise control.” In other words, no combination of motorcycles riding together can exceed the maximum allowable EPA decibel rating of “one” motorcycle! Mayor Jim Baca stated publicly that this noise ordinance targets motorcycles and barking dogs, which lets us know how much of Albuquerque feels about motorcyclists.

Barbara Alvar, Chairperson of the New Mexico Motorcyclists Legislative Impact Committee wrote, “due to this legislation, Albuquerque can no longer be considered a biker friendly city.” And who will that inconvenience? The majority of road users will be overjoyed to know that motorcycles can’t collect in flocks and homeowners will see their roadway-proximity property values increase. Motorcyclists are the most arrogant mini-minority I know of and we’ve made a lot of enemies. This is our future and we have no right to act surprised.

Portland, Maine passed a law similar to Daytona Beach’s noise abatement law that forbids the operation of “any noise-creating device in such a manner that the level of noise causes the public’s attention to be drawn to the source of the noise.” The reason for aftermarket pipes is to “draw attention to the source of the noise.” It’s not as if performance is an issue on public roads. A well-tuned 125 is more motorcycle than most of the exhibitionist crowd can handle. Even the mostly-worthless AMA is getting into the act, (check out They’re adding a little momentum to their “Loud pipes risk rights” campaign but, it’s too little, and possibly, too late.

The average person doesn’t “wave at” passing motorcycles with all four fingers. Far too many people associate motorcycles and motorcyclists with obnoxious noise, poor manners, and law-breaking traffic behavior. If you don’t understand how minor a minority we are, spend a few rush hour minutes counting bikes and cars on any major road. If you come up with a ratio higher than one in one-thousand, you should count again. In Minnesota, we are a speck on the windshield of highway planning. If we want to be included in future traffic management systems, we’d better become better citizens of the road and better neighborhoods. Cutting back on the noise would be a good start.

As a reference to how the average, non-motorcycling public views motorcycle noise, check out search for “motorcycle noise”. Motorcycle Consumer News has a Safety and Legislative Issues forum where motorcyclists discuss this particular issue: You might be amazed at how many experienced motorcyclists are becoming disenchanted with fellow noisy riders. Loud pipes are not just creating legislation for motorcycles, they are creating outright enemies for motorcycling and motorcyclists.


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