The myth of loud pipes

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Today I will bravely expose my view in answer to the question: Do loud pipes really save lives?

In a word: No.
(Fear not, I’ll say more.)

But before I launch headfirst into this one, know that my very own stepmother rode a bike with screaming pipes. I loved her then and I love her now. And I’m pretty sure she still likes me.

Now, to plunge in….

Those who argue that loud pipes save lives assert that the screaming machine alerts drivers to their presence when approaching their blind spot. This call-to-attention, they maintain, prevents the driver from cutting them off. Not being cut off equals not being killed. While the final mathematical equation is accurate, the formula used to get there isn’t.

While driving my car at higher, more lethal (yet legal) speeds, I can anecdotally say that I hear motorcycles up ahead and right beside quite well. What I don’t hear nearly as well is what’s behind me.

There is a scientific explanation for this. As you increase the distance between yourself and the source of the sound, the intensity of the sound decreases. Sound intensity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance away from the source. Each time you double the distance, you reduce the sound pressure by a factor of two and the intensity by a factor of four. In plain English, when driving my car ahead of (and continually away from) a motorcycle, I am driving to where the sound is less intense, hence less audible. And in all likelihood it’s competing against the noise I’m driving toward (i.e. the vehicles ahead of me).

My point of view keeps good company. The American Motorcycle Association has opposed excessive motorcycle noise since 1924. And as mentioned in a previous column, ICBC’s Road Sense for Riders states that “It is estimated that 80 per cent of all riding information comes through the eyes.” Which is to say that visual cues have greater efficacy than auditory ones.

Motorcycle Cruiser, an online magazine, also addresses this myth of loud pipes saving lives in a feature article titled The Deadly Dozen: 12 Motorcycle Safety Myths and Misconceptions. The writer of this article suggests that a more effective way to proactively ensure your safety might be to wear bright reflective clothes and helmet, and consider installing a loud horn. Again, the emphasis is on visual first; then, an intermittent, startling sound (loud horn).

OK, so perhaps the scientific explanation, the shared philosophy from motorcycle-centric organizations and the input from a respectable online motorcycle magazine might not produce the definitive argument. What clinches it for me is this: if auditory input is so crucial for safety, then sitting on the source of the eardrum-shattering noise would significantly diminish one’s ability to hear other oncoming hazards as they enter one’s own danger zone. Your visual sensory inputs probably have to be operating at 98 per cent in order to stay safe.

If you are going to argue that loud pipes save lives, you may as well also argue for drunk driving. After all, it was documented by the All American Auto Transport in 2008 that more than 65 per cent of all accidents are caused by sober drivers. No, I’m not advocating it; I’m trying to point out that while each statement can be skewed in a convincing way, each is terribly misleading.

There. I’ve said it. Let the controversy rage on. But please, step off your bike before you roar.

– Britt Santowski

Britt Santowski is a former chief instructor with the Vancouver Island Safety Council, where she trained instructors and taught riders for almost a decade. Britt is also a keynote speaker, workshop facilitator, speaker, consultant and author.


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15 Responses to “The myth of loud pipes”

  1. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:28 pmD. J.

    Good Morning Britt

    I Liked And Agree With Most Of Your Article. I Have Been Riding Since 1965 And Currently Ride A Quiet BMW R1150R. I Have Taught Motorcycle Safety And Encouraged Many New Riders To Ride Safely By Making Suggestions Face To Face At Traffic Lights And So On. I Know When I Ride That I Am Invisible To The Average Motorist. This Condition Worsens When I Wear Bright Clothing. It Is Like I’ve Become A Target. My Normal Riding Jacket Is Bright Red. It Makes Me, I Think, Very Visible. The Worst Is When I Wear My Very Bright Yellow Rain Suite. As Soon As I Put This On, They All Seem To Want To Get Me. I Have Wondered About This Over The Years And The Only Possible Reason I Can Think Of Is ” You Go Where You Are Looking” Almost All New Riders Are Told To Look Where They Want To Go, Not At The Big Rock, Or The Big Cliff. Your Bike Will Always More Naturally Go To The Path You Are Looking At.

    Anyway, That’s My Little 2 Cents Worth. Good Article And I Look Forward To More.

    Kindest Regards
    D. J.

  2. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:30 pmW.P.

    Hi Britt,

    This is a copy of a letter I sent to Dave Obee of the TC. Almost every year I a variation of this published.

    My opinion from a different perspective.


    …”Loud motorcycles are annoying, but safe
    “I didn’t see the motorcycle”, is something I heard dozens of times while investigating accidents.

    As an ex-cop, who rode a Harley as a member of a department’s motorcycle division, I see the reaction to control noisy motorcycle exhausts as a small aspect of a larger problem. I am more concerned about a driver’s reaction, and their inability to control their emotions when operating a motor vehicle. This lack of control can escalate to aggressive driving, verbal abuse or worse. One such incident was in California in 2008, when a 53-year-old driver shot a 20-year-old man in the face because of the loud pipes.

    Laws designed to quiet one demographic are dangerous. The offended individuals can interpret the law as their justification to act out.

    This misguided sense of entitlement turns up the volume on the individual’s poor choices, setting the stage of a non-incident becoming a potentially harmful situation.

    Last year, the Victoria Police Department’s Chief Graham announced a crackdown on loud pipes. I am active in the motorcycle community and have yet to talk to anyone who was ticketed.

    Operating ANY motor vehicle on the road is a privilege. Most of us are happy to drive from A to B without incident. It’s great to be alive (considering the alternative), and every day is a good day for a drive, or a ride.

    A motorcycle’s loud pipes are not about ego. In fact they saves lives.

    You as a driver may not see me on my Harley, but you will definitely hear me.


  3. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:31 pmBritt

    First, let me express my deepest sympathies for your loss. And second, I’m very happy that you are seeking to share your story and your perspective. An individual’s experience can never be fit into a sweeping perspective, and I am honoured that you read the column and that you took the time to record and share your story. Every different view contributes to building a comprehensive bigger picture. Thank you.

    Most respectfully yours,

  4. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:33 pmW

    Hi Britt,

    You are too kind…really.

    Will be be writing more motorcycle articles for the TC section?

    Maybe a “Two-wheel solution to high cost of fuel

    Two Wheels can beat the high cost of fuel. Scooters to Touring Motorcycles and everything in between provides a viable alternative, ranging from a $1,000 to $30,000 and up.

    Scooters for many are a great place to start, as they are fun to ride and will not drain your pocket book. Scooters with a motor with a piston displacement of 50 cc or less, or a power source that produces a maximum of 1.5 kW can be operated with a class 5 license. Many have a step-through design that allows the rider to “step through” without “throwing a leg over” the motorcycle frame. Good news for skirt wearers.

    Scooters range up to 800cc.

    There are differents styles of motorcycles from Dirt bikes to Dual Sports (which allow for a diverse use), sport bikes for the adrenalin junkies, cruisers and touring giants. Motorcycles and scooters can be personalized, allowing you to make a statement. Custom motorcycles are available that set a standard for ‘outrageous”, and all that stands in your way is the limit of your creativity.

    There is more than 35 manufacturers providing choices in most categories. It’s always best to shop around and if you have time, talk to riders, who are more than happy to talk about their rides. It’s always a good time to make a deal and some dealers are more competitive than others.

    We are blessed with outstanding weather here in BC, and Victoria is a two-wheel mecca. Riding two-wheels doesn’t have to be expensive. On thing it is, is a great deal of fun. Shop around, take lessons, and you will enjoy this activity until your dying days.

    Short of flying a jet, few experiences come close to the open-air ride on two-wheels. It allows you to be the image of eco-cool or the bad-a-s biker. One thing we have in common is two wheels. So, if your scooter gets a flat, don’t be surprised that Harley riding biker stops to help.

    Just a few ideas.

    Have a great day,


  5. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:35 pmR

    Dear Britt-

    I’m sitting in my office at Jacklin and Sooke road ground floor and the din from the street coming in is unbelievable. It’s coming from trucks, buses, cement mixers and cars of all types, the motorcycle noises are infrequent and brief, and pretty much lost in th row.

    Motorcycle pipe noise won’t save you on the highway due to speed , wind , noise and the fact sound is behind you. Not tailgating and not speeding on a bike will save you.

    However in town at slower speeds, the pipes do make a difference.

    -The car that pulls out from the curb, into your lane.
    -The lady in the red Toyota last wed. who was using her laptop on the passenger seat drifting into my lane who heard me there, because she was looking away at the time.
    – The people for some reason just don’t see you.
    -people in parking lots that scoot out of their spaces into your path.

    These things may not kill you (unless you’re pushed into oncoming traffic) but it F*****N hurts, and will break your bike. I ride a harley with louder pipes, not open pipes, there are mufflers. I rode a Suzuki volusia for a year with very quiet stock mufflers and i was constantly getting into the type of scenarios listed above. When I was back on a Harley, that behavior stopped about 60% not 100% but it sure helps.

    I just don’t feel one group gets singled out because most people drive cars. It seems in this overly tolerant world we’re given free reign to openly hate motor cyclists and smokers.

    The bikers always show up and contribute to any cause and charity and volunteer.

    All the thanks we get are complaints about noise and pushing silly helmet law changes.

    Nobody care that my neighbor has a pickup with a pwerstroke diesel that starts every 6 am with 4 security chirps then VROOM. It’s way louder than my bike starting and at idle it’s really noisy.I don’t whine thought.

    We have to learn to live and let live. soon anything thats pleasurable or fun will be banned. Is that the life we want?


  6. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:35 pmND

    Response received by email


    Great information in your article today.

    I thought the problem with vector/velocity recognition from a moving object relative to yourself is described in the Doppler effect model?


  7. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:36 pmBritt

    Response received by email


    I currently own a very quiet bike that is bright red as is my leather jacket. THEY (the blind 1 percenters) don’t see me. I used to own a very small very loud bike. In downtown traffic I was noticed. Everyone
    looked. I agree that loud pipes are frowned upon and at highway speeds are just plain annoying but in the city, at slower speeds, drivers can’t help but notice you pull up beside them.


    Why do motorcycles come with useless horns? Give me something that will penetrate full volume rap.

    Regards, CN

  8. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:37 pmJM

    Response received by email


    I was delighted to see your column on motorcycle pipes. We live on the corner of Jacklin and Sooke Road and I would have liked you to expand your thoughts on the subject with respect to people on any busy streets and non-busy streets with respect to the noise created in our every day life with respect to those same pipes and revving of motors. We are at our wits end as we bought our condo in the rainy season and winter. As soon as June came about with the nice weather we have been inundated with the noise of the commuters and especially the weekend warriors on motorcycles. I believe many of them don’t even think of the people who live with the constant noise. We have spoken with a number of the people in our condo units and everyone would like to see the noise bylaw enforced with respect to these unthinking riders who have no respect for the amount of noise pollution they make.

    Just wanted to express my opinion. Keep up the good work.


  9. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:38 pmBB

    Response received by email


    Hi & Hello from an ‘Albertan’ in Langford.

    I’m transplanted here and have been enjoying our “Condo” here in tranquil Langford? Or, so I believed. Most weekends before dusk & usually around sunrise there are a serious group of bikers who depart Langford close to Hwy 1 & they choose to rap their big bikes and unrestricted exhausts with the only intent being to wake everybody within earshot up. Nice! Goes on all the time and the local R.CO.M.I. never seem to be out on their Bike or Black Suburban to confront these rascals.

    Even on Goldstream Ave. it is not unusual to have Bikes with no baffles, restrictors or mufflers cruising through on full throttle. Guess their belief of “Macho” is somehow tied into decibels. The higher decibels offsets their wee, tiny Brains and miniscule abilities at foreplay.

    Several weeks ago a bylaw was finally passed in Edmonton to address that numerous Bikers were way outside the reasonable numbers of what noise should and will be tolerated. It has taken a writer at the Edmonton Journal – “Scott Mc Keen” and many columns from concerned citizens to finally have this realized. It was so frustrating to try to sit outside in Old Strathcona, enjoy a coffee, conversation during the summer.

    Glad your article speaks to the few louts who believe it is their God given right to be so immature and inconsiderate in their conduct. Gee! Does the purchase of a huge Fat Boy Harley come with a certificate allowing you to modify it and totally piss off the rest of society. Don’t think so.

    Maybe the time is coming for the surrounding communities in and around Victoria to put a stop to these boorish self centered individuals. Law enforcement certainly has the capability to constrain these noise violations. Meters to measure respectable exhaust decibels are available. A prairie city- Edmonton has taken this initiative. Hopefully your comments Britt will awaken the city fathers here to respond in kind.

    Thanks for having the courage to speak up and certainly letting the considerate citizens know there are responses we can send to the louts out there! Cheers.


  10. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:39 pmS.

    Response received by email


    Britt, I just read your article on loud pipes. In terms of visual vs audible cues, my experience when driving is the opposite. For example police, fire, and ambulance sirens. Usually I hear them before I see them. Then again if every motorcycle had extremely loud pipes, we would all start ignoring the sound. Just my two bits.


  11. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:39 pmJ.S.

    Response received by email


    obviously, you’ve never commuted and rode your bike during rush hour in an urban setting. also, if loud pipes don’t save lives, why are they thinking of installing pipes on hybrids and electric cars?


  12. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:40 pmB

    Response received by email


    Hi Britt,

    Good column, I’ll bet you got a ton of feedback, not all friendly J

    Another supportive point is that the vehicles you are driving towards (including their horns) have a higher pitched sound (Doppler shift), which would be more noticeable to the human ear, until they pass you. Conversely, vehicles you are driving away from you have a lower pitched sound less noticeable to the human ear.



  13. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:41 pmz

    Response received by email


    Loud Pipes do save lives…

    If you think not, obviously you are not saved…


  14. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:41 pmrick

    Response received by email


    how can you hear load pipes when you are in the car windows up air conditioner on full radio blasting???


  15. […] newsclip on loud pipes [watch it here]. Last year, I too asserted my opinion on loud pipes [read it here]. I have an opinion. That opinion is that loud pipes don’t save lives. Others have other […]

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