The revised law is a week old and clearly stated. In essence, motorcycles and other vehicles must be equipped with mufflers. And those mufflers cannot be modified in a way that makes them louder.
Simple. And yet the debate over the law has become louder than the noise it was designed to prevent.
On one side of the issue are bikers. They say the law unfairly targets a lifestyle. They say being louder makes people notice them.
On Facebook, roughly 5,000 people had joined the group “Loud Pipes Save Lives” since it was created two weeks ago.
“Motorists are becoming more distracted while driving with cell phones, iPods, coffee, loud music and the rush of daily life,” it states in the group description. “Motorcycles are everywhere but hard to see. MAKE YOURSELF HEARD!”
One of the group administrators, Heaven Love, of Auburn said the idea that being loud could save a life of a motorcycle rider is not the sole focus of the group.
“My biggest thing is all the stereotypes. Anything you hear about bikers is negative, negative, negative,” Love says. “But I do believe that loud pipes save lives? Yes. I’ve seen many riders get cut off by other drivers. You hear of people who avoid hitting a deer in the roadway only because the sound of the bike scared the deer off.”
And though the revised law pertains to four-wheeled vehicles as well, it is commonly felt that it takes aims at motorcycles specifically.
“I live on a busy road,” Love said. “There are motorcycles that go by and make noise. But there are tons of other things that go by and make noise, too.”
And so Love is one of those who studies the law carefully. She stays in touch with police, lawmakers and motorcycle riders. She plans to take her arguments to Augusta when the time comes.
On the other side is a group called “Mainers Against Loud Motorcycles,” a grassroots coalition trying desperately to bring about peace and quiet. The group has been around awhile. By Friday, it’s Facebook group had a more modest 150 members. Yet, since the new law went into effect, it’s been the smaller group seeing more of the action.
Bikers with admittedly loud pipes were going in to exchange words with proponents of the law. Those exchanges are frequently heated but most participants on either side of the issue had done their homework. There is logic to be found behind just about every argument.
For Andy Ford, founder of “Mainers Against Loud Motorcycles,” all of it may be much ado about nothing at all. Laws to prevent loud exhaust systems have been around a while. Historically, they have been ineffective.
“This new law, most of it has been on the books for 16 years. There are some small revisions,” Ford said. “I don’t think the law is enforceable as soon as a biker decides to challenge it.”
And challenges are almost certain. Those found in violation face a fine of $137. It’s an amount small enough for some to keep their pipes and take their chances with the law.
“We’re telling everybody that gets ticketed to go to court and fight it,” Love said. “Because people still aren’t clear about what the revised laws mean. Everybody needs to be on the same page with it.”
By the numbers
History has been kind to bikers with loud pipes. In Lewiston, where complaints of loud motorcycles have vexed the police department for years, the numbers don’t indicate aggressive enforcement.
Between the start of 2006 and the first of summer 2010, a total of 121 motorists were ticketed or warned about loud exhaust systems. Of those, only 12 were motorcycles. Four were cited in 2006, another eight in 2007.
No motorcyclists were cited in 2008, 2009 or so far in 2010. During those same years, 26, 25 and 12 people were ticketed for driving cars or trucks with exhaust systems that made too much noise.
The conclusion some make: The new law, even if all motorcycle riders are forced to display inspection stickers on their bikes (as proposed for 2012) will not result in greater enforcement.
“All attempts that I’ve seen, using inspection stickers or muffler laws, none of them work,” Ford said. “It’s pretty dismal.”
In 2012, all motorcyclists may be required to display inspection stickers. The latest figures from the state indicate that the percentage of Maine's approximately 50,000 registered motorcycles, 42 percent are not inspected. Even if a rider plans to get and display an inspection sticker, there are ways to get it done without sacrificing their straight pipes or short pipes. Ford said he knows of some bikers who will carefully replace a loud exhaust with a different one until the sticker is obtained. Once the bike is legal, the quiet muffler comes off and the loud one goes back on. It’s common, he says.
Police presumably know of those tricks. If they don’t, they will likely learn. State Police have convened a group to study the situation. Other departments are following suit. They have no choice, really. Training is mandatory.
“Not every officer has a great working knowledge of motorcycles,” said Auburn police Chief Phil Crowell. “We want to make sure they get the training they need.”
Crowell is already working with Ford and his group. The chief also plans to coordinate with Lewiston police and get a joint enforcement effort underway.
“We need to start an education campaign and then we’re certainly going to be stepping up enforcement,” Crowell said.
One problem with enforcement has been murkiness within the law itself. How many decibels are allowed? Which pipes are illegal and which are not?
The revisions were meant to simplify things. Crowell said in most cases, those who are violating the law are doing so in dramatic style. It will be easy for the officers to tell which bikers need to be stopped.
“When it’s rattling the windows of your car, you know that’s a loud bike,” Crowell said.
Can't we all just get along?
Most bikers are aware of the flap over the revised laws. Businesses that sell or fix motorcycles are also in the loop. Police hope that much of the compliance will be voluntary.
“Education and voluntary compliance can go a long with this,” said Lewiston police Deputy Chief James Minkowsky. “I know the bike shops are talking about the issue. A little common sense will go a long way.”
Voluntary compliance? Most supporters of the new law scoff at the notion. They have tried to reason with people of the motorcycle world in the past, they say, with no luck at all.
“These people, for the most part, are not bad people,” Ford said. “But they have this fantasy. This is the image they want. They are totally immune to our positive suggestions.”
According to MECALM, studies have shown that any source of excessive noise in a community — loud car stereos, barking dogs, machinery included — is more than just a quality of life issue.
“Noise is a pollutant,” Ford said. “It has an effect on cardio system, the nervous system. ... And they are very ill effects.”
To which those who oppose the new law will repeat that they need their bikes loud so that other drivers will notice them.
“If noise isn’t a factor,” says Love, “why do emergency vehicles have sirens?”
And the debate comes full circle again.
Unfortunately, no study has proven that loud pipes aid in the safety of a motorcycle rider. In fact, the Hurt Study of 1981 indicates that the idea that loud pipes save lives may be patently untrue.
“It’s not going to make you safer,” Crowell said.
Many motorcycle groups denounce the loud pipes philosophy, too, including the American Motorcycle Association.
“The AMA believes that few other factors contribute more to misunderstanding and prejudice against the motorcycling community than excessively loud motorcycles,” the group asserts in their official statement on the matter. “All motorcycles are manufactured to meet federally mandated sound control standards. Unfortunately, a small number of riders who install unmuffled aftermarket exhaust systems perpetuate a public myth that all motorcycles are loud.”
Some bikers agree with that. The number of troublemakers is small, they say. So why shouldn’t police just concentrate on those few rather than lumping all motorcyclists together?
“We all believe it should be a case-by-case thing,” said Josh Stone, a rider from Auburn. “Yes, some pipes, like straight pipes are louder and can be obnoxious when the rider is being obnoxious, but why make everyone pay for them?”
Like Love, Stone takes issue with the tone taken by the people of MECALM. There, anybody who rides a motorcycle is characterized as a thug or an outlaw.
“The thing that people have a problem with as far as the MECALM,” Stone says, “is some of the members seem to be just plain anti-motorcycle.”
Which is a philosophy police say they will not adopt. It is commonly known, after all, that a significant number of police officers ride motorcycles themselves.
“We are not saying motorcycles are bad,” Crowell said. “It’s really is all about noise pollution.”
“It is a balancing act,” said Minkowsky, the Lewiston deputy police chief. “Not being over aggressive with decent people riding, and not ignoring the wishes of decent people trying not have their ear drums blown out because someone is trying to 'save their life.’”
It’s an idea Heaven Love can get behind. She thinks that riders need to be reminded to keep noise down when a situation demands it. It should be more about courtesy than anything else.
“There need to be more voices out there, reminding everyone to ride respectfully,” she said. “Just be respectful of the people around you.”
Ford believes the problem will be solved someday through that kind of philosophy more than tweaks to the law. People will evolve into a different way of thinking, he says, just like they did in the matter of second hand smoke. There was a time when a person could smoke anywhere without raising eyebrows. Today? You can’t smoke in most bars, let alone hospitals or restaurants.
“That’s where riding loud is headed,” Ford said. “It will be like lighting up a cigarette in a hospital. It will become unacceptable, and we’ll be a better society for it.”