Loud Harley-Davidsons: Is motorcycle noise sweet harmony or out-of-control din?

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Leroy N. Soetoro

May 27, 2018, 3:11:48 PM5/27/18
Noise. The only thing better is hearing one of the drunks riding a Harley
run under a semi at 2:30 AM in the morning. Silence. The sweet harmony
of silence.

MILWAUKEE— Robert Miranda’s motorcycle, nicknamed Loki, roars when he revs
the engine.

To him, it’s a beautiful sound, part of the city’s motorcycle heritage
that began 115 years ago with the founding of Harley-Davidson.

“This is where ‘thunder’ starts in America. … If it’s too loud for you,
then it’s because you are not a Milwaukeean,” Miranda said.

But while the roar of a Harley is sweet music to many people who associate
the big two-wheelers with rollicking good times, others consider it

Loud motorcycles are controversial across the nation, especially in cities
that have rallies attracting thousands of bikers who spend a lot of money
at those events.

Yielding to pressure from businesses and rally-goers, some cities have
backed off enforcing noise ordinances, or even posting signs urging bikers
to "throttle down" while in town.

Headed into summer, and Harley-Davidson’s 115th anniversary celebration
Labor Day weekend, it’s going to get loud as the sound of bikes echoes off
buildings like a canyon wall.

Noise also becomes an issue as Harley seeks to expand its base of riders
in an effort to reduce declining sales, blamed in part on aging Boomers
who are giving up their bikes for more peaceful pursuits.

A big Harley has a sound rating as high as 80 decibels, similar to a
dishwasher or a garbage disposal. But any bike can be much louder if the
owner replaces the stock muffler with an exhaust pipe meant to crank out
more decibels.

Patty Yunk, who lives at the Knickerbocker Hotel condominiums on Juneau
Avenue in Milwaukee, said she’s leaving town for Harley’s anniversary
party because the noise will be unbearable.

She says loud bikes have ruined some calm summer evenings at the condos
located a couple of blocks from Lake Michigan.

“You end up shutting all of your windows,” Yunk said, but it still doesn’t
block the noise. “When the bikes congregate in large groups, and they all
take off at once, I think the trees start shaking.”

All Harleys sold in the U.S. are built to comply with federal noise
regulations, according to the company that once tried to trademark the
“potato-potato-potato” sound of its V-Twin engines.

“We love the sound of our V-Twins, and we know you can enjoy good sound
quality and performance without being excessive,” Harley-Davidson said in
a statement.

Many motorcyclists are convinced, through their own experience, that a
loud bike helps get the attention of a distracted or inattentive driver.

“Loud pipes save lives,” Miranda said, adding that his Electra Glide was
too quiet before he changed the muffler. “When they hear me coming, nobody
is going to get in my way, and nobody is going to be surprised that I am

Tom Bamberger, who lives in Milwaukee's Walker’s Point neighborhood, said
he can hear loud bikes coming five blocks from his house.

At times, the noise from bikes and cars with booming stereos has been so
bad he couldn’t hear his television.

“It’s literally an invasion into your house,” Bamberger said. Some are
loud enough to violate state law, which says you aren’t allowed to modify
a vehicle’s exhaust system to make it louder.

But that law is seldom enforced.

In Kewaunee County, in northeastern Wisconsin, Sheriff Matt Joski says
he’s cracking down on loud bikes.

“I was embarrassed to admit that we have not done enough in our
enforcement, and the time has come to bring these violations back into
compliance,” Joski said.

Damaging noise
Audiologists say riding a loud bike can cause permanent hearing damage.

The combination of engine noise and wind is harmful, said Brian Fligor,
president of Boston Audiology Consultants and a former assistant professor
at Harvard Medical School.

A full day spent on a loud bike at highway speed would subject your ears
to an “outrageous pounding,” Fligor said, akin to working 18 months in a
moderately noisy factory without hearing protection.

It helps to wear a helmet with a face shield, said Melissa Heche, director
of the New York Speech and Hearing clinic in New York.

Much of the noise stems from the wind and how fast someone rides,
according to Heche.

Wearing earplugs isn’t a good idea because it would block the sound of
surrounding traffic, putting the motorcyclist at risk. But “active” ear
protection is available that allows necessary sounds in while reducing
harmful decibels.

Many motorcyclists say they want the choice of being able to crank up the
engine sound when they feel like it, and when they’re trying to get the
attention of another motorist or an animal alongside the road.

“I like to give our furry friends a heads-up that I am coming,” Miranda

But it's not a license to offend people, said Tony Sanfelipo, a Milwaukee

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