Motorcycles are fine: Their riders simply need to obey the law.
No one has an inherent right to generate unnecessary noise pollution. Driving on America's roads and highways is a community privilege, and producing harmful public noise is always illegal, as enumerated in a vast array of local, state and federal laws (i.e. Asheville noise ordinance, NCGS 20-128, federal Noise Control Act, etc.). The problem is enforcement, and we need expanded government noise-mitigation powers, since what's on the books now has failed to remedy the situation.
Among the public-relations activities of the motorcycle community and the multibillion-dollar industry it supports are things like "honor" rallies and charity runs predictably featuring an alarming number of "exhaust systems" that aren't Environmental Protection Agency-certified, rather than real mufflers. Meanwhile, commercial media (particularly Hollywood) have done a great job of acclimatizing the rest of us to these noise trespassers who are using our commons.
But these overt and covert persuasion campaigns, often led by groups such as ABATE (American Bikers Aimed Towards Education) and the American Motorcyclist Association, don't begin to offset the harm that noise pollution inflicts on children, the elderly and others. Documented health effects include everything from hearing impairment to heart disease, immune-system changes and even birth defects.
Think about the noise that penetrates our homes and our places of worship, work and study. It's a form of trespassing, and it can certainly be reduced if not stopped. Don't let those arguing for more noise confuse the issue. Total silence isn't feasible, and there are situations when noise can be expected: construction sites, fireworks displays, Bele Chere, etc. But we as a community should be able to agree on when and where it's OK to make unusually loud noises. A biker putting out 100+ decibels doesn't cut it.
Stricter laws, though, won't help unless they're enforced — and right now, even the existing laws are routinely ignored. The way our government has been influenced by "bad seed" bikers is embarrassing; I believe a key to this problem is that too many public officials are noise offenders themselves. And with the dramatic increase in motorcycle ownership and certainly the rise of the boom car, the noise problem has exploded.
It's also time for local motorcycle shops to stop dealing in non-EPA-certified "straight pipes" and other harmful noise equipment. Even more than boom cars, the alteration of sound-muffling equipment on privately owned vehicles has altered Western North Carolina's (and America's) soundscape. "Bad seed" bikers tout loud pipes as "life-saving." But the only proven, legal safety measures for bikers are horns, lights and reflective gear — along with, of course, the rest of us really looking out for them and respecting law-abiding bikers. Department of Transportation experts could surely confirm that if City Council were to inquire. The "Loud pipes save lives" clarion call may in fact conceal the truth about motorcycle accidents. Thankfully, we can all look to those in the motorcycle community who do set a good example.
Motorcycle noise has been studied elsewhere, though I'm not aware of any local research. But for many communities in WNC, it may well be the single greatest source of noise pollution. Noise mitigation means ranking sources for harm value and responding appropriately to each type. The Asheville Quiet Zone project targeting the River District failed because it was too specific, excluding other parts of Asheville and noise issues other than train horns.
And since the California Air Resource Board has indentified motorcycles as a higher source of greenhouse gases than cars, there's all the more reason to beef up EPA standards for motorcycles. Until more stringent regulation is in place, all existing laws should be enforced at motorcycle rallies and elsewhere during routine patrols.
The National Park Service is beginning to pay more attention to motorcycle noise, and cities such as Denver and Chapel Hill are the models for modernized, comprehensive noise mitigation. Rep. Heath Shuler, a motorcycle rider himself, voiced support for curbing Blue Ridge Parkway motorcycle noise more than a year-and-a-half ago, but nothing has been done. Meanwhile, Asheville City Council may soon consider such policies.
It's time to tell our public officials that we want more peace and quiet: We deserve it. The Blue Ridge Parkway's 75th Anniversary Web site (www.blueridgeparkway75.org) solicits input on policy and community issues. This is a great opportunity to ask that noise mitigation and the protection of natural sounds be discussed. Of course, the Parkway is a roadway, but the balance with natural sounds is totally out of whack due to non-EPA-certified motorcycles; consequently, this issue is the top complaint among Parkway visitors.
Remember, this isn't the United States of Loud Bikers! The problem is nonenforcement of existing laws and lack of modern noise-mitigation programs. Expanded government noise-mitigation powers are unfortunately necessary.
Grant Millin lives in Asheville. For further information please visit: www.niceasheville.ning.com/group/lownoisewnc.