When the throttle of a Harley-Davidson with a modified exhaust system opens up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, many visitors cringe. It’s not so much the frequency of its rumble as it is the sheer volume and force of its roar: Some motorcycles are so loud they could blast the paint off of a car.
Some motorcyclists claim that it makes their presence known to others and, thus, makes riders safer. But Bob Wagner, director of the N.C. Motorcycle Safety Education program, debunks that notion, noting, “Modern cars and trucks are much better at shielding the passengers from exterior sounds.” The Snow Hill, N.C., resident continues, “If you add to this the audio systems that most people have in their cars, any advantage is gone.” And contrary to what some riders say, bikes with modified pipes don’t necessarily have more power than those equipped with quieter exhaust systems, says Wagner.
To some, the freedom to ride an ear-splitting hog is pure Americana and a patriotic show of independence. But one of motorcyclists’ favorite places to express that freedom is the Blue Ridge Parkway—and that poses a problem.
Although Parkway officials don’t keep statistics, excessive motorcycle noise is one of visitors’ most frequent complaints, says acting Chief Ranger Steve Stinnett. He takes those complaints seriously, since he’s charged with the task of safeguarding everyone’s experience on the famous byway.
Although the occasional throaty motorcycle may shatter the serenity of nature, a lot of Parkway visitors expect some level of noise since it is, after all, a road. But some recreational users—such as leaf-gazers, bird-watchers and bicyclists—may be more sensitive. Hiker Grant Millin of Asheville, for example, finds egregiously loud motorcycles downright offensive. “I can experience at least a half-dozen incidences of noise pollution—mainly from motorcycles—on an hourlong hike,” he reports. “The Parkway is a roadway, but it’s also a nature reserve,” says Mullin, who hikes the Mountains-to-Sea -Trail daily. “Loud motorcycles are making a presentation to society that has no value. I don’t want to know about them. It’s not the sound of freedom; it’s not an American value to be loud and obnoxious.”
The scope of the problem is nothing new. The Harley-Davidson Motor Co. is promoting an anti-noise campaign and, for decades, the American Motorcyclist Association has firmly opposed excessive noise, encouraging riders to be respectful and to self-regulate before someone else does.
That may be sound advice: In some places, it’s already too late for voluntary action. Earlier this year, Myrtle Beach, S.C., joined a growing number of municipalities that have cracked down on loud rides. Once a favorite motorcycle destination, the town has adopted regulations that discourage—if not outright ban—bike rallies.
Yet silencing noisy bikes isn’t easy. Though it may appear that loud motorcycles ride with impunity, the truth is that measuring excessive noise and enforcing the noise standard along the Parkway’s 469 miles is costly. And the high cost may exceed the potential benefit of nabbing the occasionally loud motorcyclist. New technology and thoughtful regulation may solve the problem in the future, but Stinnett says: “Our objective is not to write tickets. We aren’t out to get motorcycles.”
Through education rather than enforcement or regulation, he hopes to persuade loud riders to muzzle their engines. Although the Parkway has no formal program to deal with excessively loud motorcycles, Stinnett says officials take every opportunity to discuss the issue. “We hope that education takes care of 90 percent of the problem,” he says. “But it has got to be a cooperative effort that involves the riders.”
Of course, some people don’t like motorcycles, period. And it’s easy to lump all riders into one inconsiderate, rowdy bunch of bandits. But nothing could be further from the truth, says rider Mick Kreszock of Boone. “I think it is a very small minority. Most people don’t notice the 99 quiet motorcycles that pass—only the one loud one,” he asserts.
“The point is that people get angry at motorcyclists for being loud, and they decide that no motorcycles are allowed,” says Wagner. “What one motorcyclist does reflects on all of us. If we make enough people angry, it won’t be long before we find ourselves fighting for access.”
[Jack Igelman lives in Asheville.]