Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Loud pipes.

I'm pleased to introduce you more directly to Dean W. You've seen his comments on the blog. Dean's a good friend, and a former protege of mine. These days Dean's a Master in his own right and has been for a long time. We teach ART and police training classes together. Dean also happens to be a fellow FJR rider. Actually, he was riding one well before I bought Elvira.

Figuring you all might like a break from me, I invited Dean to do a guest post. The loud pipe issue is one we all face as riders. Dean decided to tackle a common proclamation. Without further ado, here's his thoughts.

You all know the saying: "Loud pipes save lives".

You've probably heard the justification: Car drivers don't see us, so having a loud exhaust will force them to hear us. Just blip your throttle and you can see their windows rattle...

It's always bothered me. Not just the noise- but the notion that it was helpful. ( I actually like the rumble of a well tuned motor. That doesn't mean it has to be ear-splitting loud.)

My first sticking point was that if a driver doesn't see you, there's no guarantee they're going to hear you, either. I'd be willing to bet that with windows rolled up, A/C on, and increasing efforts to isolate drivers from their environment, most any modern car audio system can be turned up loud enough to drown out those loud pipes. You're probably all thinking of a 20-something with a booming stereo that can be heard for blocks. I'll offer a retired couple enjoying their favorite symphony, or a 40-something reliving his youth with the AC/DC blaring. (Wasn't me, honest!)

Next, let's talk about sound propagation. Go look at any motorcycle, and the exhaust opens to the back. That means the sound waves are pushed out the back... not the most helpful if you're worried about a lane violation from the side or front. But sound does propagate in all directions. Unfortunately, low frequency sounds (rumble rumble) are hard to localize, even if the windows aren't rolled up. So maybe they know there's a bike around, but quite possibly, they don't know where it really is. Not helpful.

( editor's note: That's why emergency vehicle sirens are high pitched and pointed forward )

And loud pipes are... loud. If they're going to be loud enough to be heard by someone else, what are they preventing you from hearing? Horns, like the rest of us use? Sirens? Screeching tires as the car behind you loses control?

Finally, there's background noise. On an ongoing basis, your brain receives an incredible amount of data from your senses- sights, sounds, smells, touch, temperature, taste. It can't always process all of it, all the time. Ever notice how, over time, a constantly present sensation- a sound, smell, feeling, or even some commonly present visual object- fades away so that you don't notice it any more? Your brain has determined that it's not a threat and learns to ignore it. So, the constant bombardment of sound from a loud motorcycle exhaust will soon fade into the background, defeating the purpose.

(This is where I argue for a loud HORN, which is only loud when you need it to be. I've replaced the horns on my FJR with a louder pair. I chose the new horns so that when I push the button, the driver's first impression- before looking- is "1970's Buick Electra 225".)

More than once I've used those horns to temporarily convince another driver that they were about to collide with the proverbial irresistable force, and then escape during their confused and frantic search for one of the largest 4-door passenger vehicles ever built by GM. Afterward, I allowed myself the luxury of patting myself on the back for the foresight of installing these horns. . . then I beat myself up for getting into a position where I needed to use them.

The epiphany came when I was teaching a class. One of the topics we cover is "Mental Motorcycling". Amongst other things, this is where we discuss rules for lane placement, and present SIPDE (Scan, Identify, Predict, Decide, Execute) as a process for risk and hazard management.

Further along, while talking about specific hazards, we discuss blind
spots- how do you know if you're in someone's blind spot, and what you should do.

It came to me that this is the very situation that aficionados of exhaust noise claim justifies their aural assault- using noise to gain the attention of drivers that don't see them.

In contrast, the solution presented in the book is a two step process that can be done by anyone, on any size motorcycle or scooter with any size engine.

Situation: Are you in someone's blind spot?

Recognize: Can you see their eyes in their mirrors?

Hazard: If they can't see you, there might be a lane violation. (Fancy phrase for "collision")

Solution: (and here's the epiphany) GET OUT OF THEIR BLIND SPOT.

Remove yourself from the situation. Just that simple. You can speed up, slow down, or just move to one side a little- but get to a place where they can see you. I'll go a little further- get to a position where, if they do change lanes, they can't collide with you. That means moving ahead of or behind the car. Give yourself enough space cushion to evade if need be.

So, here's a challenge: next time you go for a ride (or drive), watch for how many times you catch yourself beside another vehicle. Then when you recognize the situation, take control of the it and do something to alleviate the hazard.

If you'd like to visit the website for PJ's Parts ( who sell the t-shirt ) click on the photo of the girl.

Irondad's comment: This is the part where you'd normally find the disclaimer: "The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the editor's." In this case I happen to agree with Dean's comments. I appreciate your taking time to contribute to the blog, Dean.

No matter what other arguments a person might have, there aren't any magic bullets. Nothing is as powerful a tool for a motorcyclist as are well developed physical and mental skills.

Miles and smiles,



Dean W said...

Complete with typo in the last sentence, just the way I tend to change my sentences at the last moment.

Obviously, there's an extra "the" in there.

Thanks, Dan!

Anonymous said...

My late father had a Buick Electra 225. Nice car if that was your style. I had a Volvo 544; now that was a contrast. And my 1981 Honda Goldwing had four LOUD horns: 2 to the front and one on each side of the bike because forward facing horns don't always work when you're beside some idiot and you want to change lanes & the vehicle operator beside you is not with it!
And have also found that a tinging bicycle bell mountrf on the handlbars will elicit more attention in a noisy urban setting ie a crosswalk than any horn.

Sadly it might be noticed that the louder the exhaust, the smaller the reproductive organs on the owner of said noise machine.
Of late exhaust noises on metric motorcycles are just as noisy. Must be some connection between noise and lack of connective tissue between the brain and the hand on the throttle.

MeanStreak said...

Great guest post! I've never understood the mentality of being loud for the sake of being loud when it comes to exhaust. While I do have louder than factory exhaust, I bought it from a performance standpoint, balanced with intake and fuel management for optimum results. I love the fact that I can have a normal conversation with my wife either standing next to my bike while idling or while in motion.

Ride safe!

Learning to Golf said...

Like MeanStreak, my exhaust is louder than stock, but only because I wanted fishtails. If I could have found a stock set of them they would be on there. I now have the power to be a good neighbor when riding or be an a**hole with just a slight twist of my wrist. I prefer the good neighbor approach.

I've also just come to realize that my exhaust has never got me out of, or into, a lane violation. Being aware and prepared save lives and THAT has worked for me on MANY occassions.

Krysta in MKE said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Krysta in MKE said...

Yes, yes, YES!!!!
Every sensible, logical reason that constant muffler noise is not a safety device!

Other persuasions to add to your list:
Honking a horn is faster than pulling in the clutch & blipping the throttle, is a known warning noise, & keeps you in control of the bike (power to the wheel).
Also, most crashes (about 45% overall) are just the motorcycle & about 41% overall are 2-vehicle & come from more or less straight ahead (between 11-1:00). There's 86% of crashes that noise wouldn't do a blessed thing to prevent.

I got crash stats (2006 fatalities) from the NHTSA (FARS), & there's NO difference between the multi-vehicle crash rate for Harleys (being the most common noise offenders) & all other makes. If noise kept them safer, their multi-vehicle rate should be lower. I'm working on the '07 & '08 stats.

Problem is, noise is a religion for some people, & even presenting logic & facts won't change their minds. And then there are some people who admit they just like being jerks & annoying people.

Dru_ said...

Like many things, the phrase "Loud Pipes saves Lives" is a flimsy justification for a something that a group of people want. In this case, it has reached a point where it has become something that people actually believe.

The sad but true statement is that we could save alot more lives by going back in time and relearning lost skills:

Courtesy being the most important.

Think about the lives that could be saved by simply slowing down, using blinkers and turning off the cell phones to *gasp* pay attention to the act of driving.

Since that isn't going to happen, we have to be proactive about protecting ourselves. That makes 'easy' things like loud pipes sound attractive, but they aren't for all of the above mentioned reasons, as well as a few more; the active antagonism and hostility they breed from driver and other riders being on the list.

Modulating headlights and running with your brights are also 'easy' solutions with little proof that they work, and plenty of questions about if they create additional risks.

It really is too bad that we don't have wide spread PSA's and more people riding to expand the awareness of us.

redlegsrides said...

damn good information and dead on....I've learned to ride so that no matter what the cars around me do, there's no way they can actually hit me....it's not be visible, its be un-hittable...or as near as you can be.....

here's where the above concept was formally introduced, though it's been there in all the training I've gone through...LINK

when cars are near me, my thumb is near the horn button or if I foresee a possible "event".

loud pipes don't save lives but they do irritate the crap out of everyone around you....and then those irritated people paint all motorcycle riders with the same brush....not good.

now, if we could only make this a part of getting a driver's license for the first time or renewed....ride a motorcycle/scooter in city traffic for one week.....

Poustman said...

Any links for where to purchase those Electra horns?

Allen Madding said...

ok...with that myth debunked, how about "Ape Hanger save lives" ?? :)


Dean W said...

Krysta- It's worse than that. I don't know if NHTSA asks the right questions, but Oregon data shows that about 2/3 of motorcycle crashes (fatalities) here occur in corners- and about half of those are multi-vehicle. Most frequently, the motorcyclist commits a "lane violation" and crosses into oncoming traffic.

Poustman- The horns I have are "Magnum Blaster" horns, acquired at a local auto parts store. They actually can be found by any of several names- "Freeway Blaster" and "Fiamms Blaster" are also common. They're made by Fiamms. Here's a link on how-to and a photo comparing the stock horn to the replacement.

Allen- I'll ponder ape hangers. Meanwhile, there was a news story this past week about a Texas rider who is suing his dealership for forcing him to use the front brake and causing a crash.

Dean W said...

Horns- also look up Stebel Compact Nautilus. Whee!

Stacy said...

Well said.

John said...

I have a semi loud set of pipes depending on which of my neighbors you talk to. They have never helped people to see me in all the time I've been on the road. Around here I think it's a frieudian thing with people. I too have better horns. Mine are off and older Impala and they do grab attention. Thanks for the article. I enjoyed it.

Poustman said...

Thanks for the link-- that's a strong setup!

American Scooterist Blog said...

I like a quiet bike. The engine is a beautiful sound which gets interrupted by the sounds of loud exhaust. I like to hear the valves, listen to the transmission's natural whine. The gurgle of the pipe(s) should be a tone balanced to the rest of what you hear.

Every bike I own has stock exhaust. From the Japanese bikes to the Harley to the Vespas.

So be a little vain. Check yourself out in somebody elses mirrors hehe.


cpa3485 said...

Dean, thanks for the post. It's a refreshing break from Irondad. Just kidding.
Love that orange T-shirt

Krysta in MKE said...

"Texas rider who is suing his dealership for forcing him to use the front brake and causing a crash"


I found this news article on him:

Yes, the shop should have reattached the brake right, but c'mon! A big heavy bike like that & he doesn't know how to use the front brake?

What an idiot!

Allen Madding said...

Dean, I read that article and thought someone should put a steel toed put in the crack of his butt.

as far as the Steibel:

best $36 you'll ever spend.


Jack Riepe said...

Dear Dean (Via IronDad):

Just the other day, I had a gentleman explain to me how loud pipes saves lives. This same, well-intentioned individual told me I was virtually asking for a broken neck or a collar bone by wearing a full-face helmet.

I thanked him for the information, and for taking the time to explain it to me. People ride motorcycles for a lot of reasons, many of which are questionable, though valid in theory. It has been my limited experience that it would be easier to change a person's sexual orientation than to change their minds on loud pipes.

My last bike had twin FIAMM screamers under the fairing. I chased a guy on some cruiser one day, to tell him that his saddle bags were open, spewing contents on the road. I got to within eight feet of this rider, who was unable to hear those horns blaring.

My new horn, not yet installed, is a Steibel/Nautilus Compact Air Horn. These suckers draw 18 amps when you hit the button and need a big fuse. They also need to be installed in an upright position, with the intake to the rear, or it dramatically shortens the life of the horn. I mention this as it complicates the installation.

To the gentleman who maintained loud pipes save lives, I asked why then do we not all just blow our horns every 90 seconds or so, and reduce the mortality rate by half. His reply, "that would be rude and annoying."

I thought Dean was a man's name, but you certainly look cute in the PJ's shirt.

Fondest regards,
Twisted Roads

Andrew Thomson said...

Great read and I have to say that I've never subscribed to the "Loud pipes save lives" theory. I think that in certain circumstances it may help make the rider more visible but definitely not all (that boy-racer with his stereo on 10 etc). Nothing beats keeping your eyes and ears peeled and wits about you.

Both my bikes run standard mufflers - at this stage...

kz1000st said...

I have a friend who installs loud horns on all his motorcycles. He also rides in peoples blind spots and uses his horns liberally when they naturally start to cut him off. Personally I prefer to drive defensively (intelligently) and not even know if my horn even works.

Canajun said...

Great post and right on the mark! As someone else once said, if safety is the ultimate objective, why aren't all those guys (and gals, too) wearing day-glo orange vests and bright white helmets - if they're wearing a helmet at all. Makes no sense whatsoever, but it has been presented as "fact" for so long some folks actually believe it.

Steve Williams said...

Fantastic job Dean. Loud pipes Saves lives is a great topic to start.

I've always thought the Loud Pipes movement and slogan was more of a rationalization and attempt to quiet the growing criticism of loud bikes. I doubt there was ever any serious belief behind it.

Two more plausible reasons for loud pipes would be attention getting (look at me, look at me, look at me), power, and the "F you" effect. All those are rooted in needs that don't respond too well to logic or common courtesy.

This weekend I have been riding a Ducati HyperMotard with an aftermarket Termignoni exhaust. I ride with foam earplugs and the engine had a deep, deep rumble. I wanted to experience the sound directly, took the plugs out and went holy hell that's loud. I was so embarrassed that I took the back way home so I could kill the engine at the top of the hill and coast home.

Loud Pipes... I'm an offender now. At least until I get my Vespa back.

Steve Williams
Scooter in the Sticks

Anonymous said...

One further note.
I have a neighbor not too many houses away. He drilled/reamed his
Harley pipes to make them much louder. He shakes the windows of houses he passes. Two of his older neighbours (older than me) got fed
up. The bike was outside, and the owner had to use his truck to do an errand. Neighbours shoved not one, not two but three large potatoes up the exhaust pipes! The bike at first couldn't start. But when it did, those potatoes became missiles. And one exhaust pipe now has a hole where
there wasn't a hole and the bike smells like burnt potatoes. He would love to know who did this, but I'll never tell, nor will his neighbours. One neighbour left him a cryptic note. "Next time the potatoes will be up your butt if you don't get a quieter motorcycle!"

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post, thanks to both of you!!

I have a fazer, it's quiet, really quiet. On a long road he's like riding on air, the road noise is louder than the engine.

Isn't that progress? Not having a tractor rumbling so loud under you you cannot think? (i'm assuming many of the old bikes were loud too)

As to horns, you CANNOT have enough noise on tap ... peds are the worst here, horns work, engine noise doesn't .... that simple.


Young Dai said...

Apart from being both anti-social and ineffective as warning devices, another thing not mentioned is that loud pipes actually put the rider in real danger of actual and permanent harm.

By this I mean damage to the rider's hearing, from this very load noise, leading not only to hearing loss, but also to tinnitus. You know how next door's burglar alarm always goes off half an hour after they have gone away for the weekend. Imagine living with your own constant firebell inside your head ?

I read a magazine article just as I came into biking, of a Road Captain who after riding for many years with straight-through pipes and no helmet, had just that. He was stone deaf but with a constant ringing.

This scared the Bejasus out of me and as a result ear plugs have always been part of my ATGATT fit. Initially little foam ones then last year I have bought got a custom fitted set. Expensive but very comfortable.

Secondly sitting that close to that level of noise is also very tiring. The concentration must begin to suffer And that really is dangerous if you are not paying attention.

Rat said...

Brilliantly done! I hate that flimsy "Loud Pipes Save Lives" justification for annoying and painfully loud pipes. I have been saying "Loud Pipes Do Not Save Lives -- Helmets Save Lives" for years. But I think this T-Shirt slogan is great! Wear your gear, and learn to ride, practice your skills, stay alert!

ryde4ever said...

You said " then I beat myself up for getting into a position where I needed to use them."
Don't do that! The horn is another tool. Sometimes in extreme urban traffic, like rush hour in construction zones, there just isn't a better position that you can place your bike.
Be ready to be horn happy in those situations. Horns are a good and fast way to alert others.

Poustman said...

Yesterday I saw a Harley rider with lovely quiet pipes (nice gurgling, really sounded great) wearing a magnificently large day-glo yellow riding jacket, and I think a white helmet. It was a beautiful sunny day and he lit up the road with that garment. +1 to him!

Dean W said...

dlunt- I'm not arguing that good horns are a tool, and should be used when needed.

However, I try to work hard to avoid getting into a situation when I need them. If I'm using my horn, it means I let something slip into my space cushion and I'm reacting to it, instead of keeping it at arm's length; time for me to wake up and pay attention, before things get worse.