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It may be difficult to muffle motorcycles

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 02. 2013 12:25AM
A motorcycle rider heads South on Elm Street in Manchester on Friday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts are expected to roll through the state for the upcoming Motorcyle Week festivities in Laconia. But a new state law aimed at curtailing motorcycle noise may not have the desired effect right away because, though enacted Jan. 1, not everyone knows about it yet.

"They lowered the decibel level?" Laconia Police Chief Chris Adams said last week. "I was unaware of that. We've had several discussions as a department getting ready for Bike Week - we really start getting ready a year in advance - and that hasn't been part of the plans."

Police in Milford and Portsmouth - two communities that conducted checkpoints on loud motorcycles and have local noise ordinances - also were unaware the law changed.

"We will have to turn our decibel meter to 92 now," Portsmouth police Sgt. Aaron Goodwin said Saturday.

Concord Deputy Chief Keith Mitchell said he wasn't aware of the change either, "but we don't monitor noise levels because our department doesn't have decibel meters.'' Bike Week is "not going to affect local enforcement here. We aren't planning anything special for that week either. We never have a problem with Bike Week in Concord."

The 90th Annual Bike Week kicks off Saturday and runs through Sunday, June 16. This year's motorcycle rally marks the first since substantial changes to a 20-year-old state law governing motorcycle noise levels and enforcement were signed into law.

House Bill 1442, which passed the Legislature in February 2012, reduced the legal noise level to 92 decibels - from 106 decibels previously - while motorcycles are idling and allow for roadside testing by police.

The final version of the bill, signed by former Gov. John Lynch, represented a compromise. The original bill, filed by state Rep. Michele Peckham, R-North Hampton, would have placed the allowable decibel level at 82, in line with a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standard for motorcycle manufacturers.

"We think this is a good compromise," said Dave Hickey of Rye and a member of the New Hampshire Citizens Against Loud Motorcycles group (NH-CALM). "It's the standard used in Maine, and all the information from that state indicates it has helped."

"All parties involved were looking to solve the problem of excessive motorcycle noise, and it was the best solution we had," said Candi Alexander, president of the New Hampshire Motorcyclists' Rights Organization.

'Straight pipes'

Why are some motorcycles louder than others? According to NoiseOff, a group that raises awareness of the issue of noise pollution, the answer is simple: The quiet ones are equipped with their original equipment exhaust systems, while the louder ones have had either their original systems modified or replaced with an aftermarket exhaust system.

Modified exhaust systems - often known as "straight pipes" - are those from which the baffles have been removed from the factory-supplied system or replaced by a new system without baffles, Milford police Sgt. Shawn Pelletier explained. Baffles acts like mufflers.

"When you take that (baffles) out, the exhaust gets a loud louder. It's somewhat similar to a car when the exhaust falls off and you can hear it driving down the road," Pelletier said.

Several years ago, Milford police and New Hampshire State Police ran checkpoints on loud motorcycles in downtown Milford in response to residents' complaints. Pelletier said he was surprised how much noise it took to hit even 100 decibels.

"It was a lot louder (than I thought)," Pelletier said. While police stopped many loud motorcycles, none ever measured at 106 decibels.

He compared 100 decibels to the loud, staccato bursts an 18-wheel, tractor-trailer rig equipped with Jacobs Engine Brakes - compression brakes known as "jake brakes" - makes when braking on a steep downhill in a quiet neighborhood.

"It will definitely wake you up at night," Pelletier explained.

Some nature websites say spring peeper frogs can make their peeping sound in excess of 100 decibels, most are between 85 and 90 decibels.

Safety issue

Alexander said the most common reason these vehicle owners give for making modifications is to improve safety, but an EPA analysis on noise emission regulations states: "Motorcyclists who are depending on the noise generated from their machines to provide a necessary warning to other road users are gambling with their own safety."

Police say proving a motorcycle exhaust system is too loud can be a tough task.

"The motorcycle laws in this state are not the easiest to enforce," said Lt. Jim Flanagan of the Manchester Police Department.

Flanagan said an officer must have a decibel meter with them, and an 8-foot clearance radius must be present around the motorcycle being tested. The device must be held at a 45 degree angle about 20 inches from the exhaust pipes. The test needs to be performed outdoors, so sound doesn't reverberate off walls or other objects.

"It's always been a difficult law to enforce," Sgt. Goodwin of Portsmouth agreed.

In the past, Seacoast police departments formed a specialized team to do motorcyle checkpoints, Goodwin said.

The new law "is good for anybody who doesn't like loud motorcycles," Goodwin said. "There is certainly another side of the argument - that it's a safety feature. The expression 'Loud Pipes Save Lives' - that's the other side of the argument."

But Pelletier expects the 92 decible level should benefit both sides.

"This will help the public by reducing the noise. But if the motorcycle community claims it is also a safety issue, it is still loud enough to hear them coming," he said.

Alexander said the checks are done at inspection stations during the yearly inspection or during a vehicle safety inspection road stop by police.

"They can't pull you over just because they think your bike might be too loud," said Alexander.

State-to-state differences

There are 15 states with no statewide limit on motorcycle exhaust decibels. Among New England states, Maine and Rhode Island require all motorcycles to have working mufflers that prohibit excessive noise. In Vermont, any exhaust system on a motorcycle is deemed defective if any modifications or alterations have been made that cause it to generate a higher sound level than the manufacturer's original equipment.

Massachusetts law prohibits a motorcycle from exceeding a noise limit of 82 decibels when measured at a speed of 45 mph or less, and 86 decibels at a speed of over 45 mph. In Connecticut, the maximum noise level for a motorcycle traveling 35 mph or slower in a 'soft site,' an area covered with grass or other ground cover, is 72 decibels; over 35 mph is 79 decibels. The maximum noise level for a motorcycle going 35 mph or less in 'hard site' - a site covered with concrete or asphalt - is 74 decibels; over 35 mph is 81 decibels.

Flanagan said Manchester police issued 18 citations to vehicles for muffler noise in 2012. He was not able to determine on Friday how many of those vehicles were motorcycles.

"We aren't planning any special enforcement activities associated with Bike Week this year," said Flanagan. "We will be involved in some special enforcement activities planned for the 101 East corridor, which could indirectly involve traffic headed north, but that's all."

Chief Adams said high noise levels are expected in Laconia during Bike Week. His department focuses its attention on safety and keeping the peace.

"It's night and day from what it used to be in terms of arrests here," said Adams. "Last year, we had under 100 arrests over the course of the whole nine-day event. There were years back when I first started here that we would have 200 arrests on a Saturday night. It's a much different crowd, a different atmosphere. I don't think noise levels are going to have an effect on the week at all."

State police are also expected to focus more on safety issues than sound.

"Over the last several years we've seen a dramatic increase in motorcycle crashes," says Sgt. Steve Wheeler, head of the New Hampshire State Police Tactical Reconstruction Unit.

Of the 26 motorcycle fatalities in New Hampshire last year, four occurred during Bike Week. The rally in 2011 was one of the safest in years, with just one fatality. There were 18 rider deaths in total that year. In 2010, three of the 29 fatal motorcycle accidents fell during Bike Week. Union Leader staff reporter Kathryn Marchocki contributed to this story.

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