Quiet motorcycles? Tell your neighbor to buy one of these…

Photo credit: Jan Ainali licensed under CC BY 3.0

By David Sykes, Vice Chair, and Jamie Banks, Program Director, The Quiet Coalition

You may be thinking, “quiet motorcycles…how is that possible?” In fact, they already exist—but you might have trouble getting a Harley-riding neighbor to embrace them. For many bikers, noise equals power. But in the case of electric motorcycles there is reason to believe that quiet is powerful too!

Lithium ion battery-powered motorcycles are gaining favor–Consumer Reports is impressed with them. Furthermore, the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working on camo-painted, “stealth” hybrid gas/electric off-road motorbikes.

Motorcycle noise is a serious problem—especially for people who suffer from auditory disorders like partial hearing loss, tinnitus, hyperacusis, and misophonia–for whom the racket from motorcycles can be excruciatingly painful. This may be bikers themselves or people who live in neighborhoods that are regularly exposed to this type of noise. Several years ago, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) convened a meeting about the problem of motorcycle noise and issued a report in 2014, though it seems to have fallen on deaf ears outside the NAE.

The noise has become such a problem in so many communities that even Harley-Davidson’s CEO has spoken out about Hog riders who remove their factory mufflers and install ‘straight pipes.’ Officially, the company doesn’t approve of owners tampering with the factory-installed mufflers, but after-market manufacturers are all-too-willing to meet consumer demand for more noise. The best news is that Harley-Davidson is developing an electric-powered motorcycle too.

Motorcycle noise may be a problem that regulation simply cannot fix. Given the current situation, it is unlikely the Environmental Protection Agency will be able to do anything about it. Instead, The Quiet Coalition (TQC) recommends framing motorcycle noise as a public health issue and encouraging a positive, technology-centered approach by businesses:

  • Become familiar with the large body of scientific literature indicating that loud noise is a public health problem. Authorities, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, publicize this information on their websites. Like tobacco smoke a generation ago, it will be necessary to engage public health officials before the motorcycle noise be addressed.
  • Urge individuals and groups that oppose motorcycle noise to encourage businesses to develop quieter, electric-powered alternatives. They are cheaper to operate (solar power is getting cheaper by the minute!) and much easier to maintain or repair (fewer moving parts!).

We believe these two steps are the best, most practical way to get action on this contentious issue and can actually lead to results. For example, The Quiet Coalition’s host, non-profit Quiet Communities, has been helping communities make the quiet transition away from fossil-fuel powered devices (namely landscape maintenance equipment) and towards advanced electric equipment and manual tools and emphasizing the compelling business model for users: the new lithium-ion-powered alternatives are cheaper to operate and maintain, they reduce air pollution, and they operate quietly. For some bikers, adopting technologically advanced, non-polluting, quiet alternatives may be appealing, especially if they have had health and hearing problems related to noisy bikes. It would be the start of a movement.

At TQC, we’re cautiously optimistic.

David Sykes chairs/co-chairs four national professional groups in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, ANSI S12 WG44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group. He is also a board member of the American Tinnitus Association, co-founder of the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), and a contributor to “Technology for a Quieter America” (2011, National Academy of Engineering). A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Jamie Banks, PhD, MSc, is the Executive Director of Quiet Communities, Inc.. She is an environmentalist and health care scientist dedicated to promoting clean, healthy, quiet, and sustainable landscape maintenance, construction, and agricultural practices.

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