Motorcycle Myth Busted: LOUD Pipes do NOT Save Lives


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I've long been critical of loud motorcycles, regardless of if they are custom HD cruisers or hot Italian race bikes, unwanted noise is annoying. I've never understood the logic given by the riders. You can't hear them coming at you. You can't hear them coming up from behind. The can be annoying when they are next to you or right in front of you, but only for fairly brief periods of time. The "doppler effect" for the sound of other vehicles is pretty obvious, and simple observation of the doppler effect is proof enough that loud motorcycles (or cars) do not attract the attention of drivers in time to change their driving.

A study out of Romania using various motorcycles has finally laid the myth that loud motorcycles catch the attention of drivers.

LOUD PIPES University research into loud pipes “myth”

It took a Bulgarian research project to put some numbers against the myth

You would think that even the blindest driver would see one of these. No such luck. (Photo Pinterest)
You would think that even the blindest driver would see one of these. No such luck. (Photo Pinterest)​
Bad news for supporters of ‘loud pipes save lives’. They don’t do any such thing, and for the simplest reason of all: car drivers can’t hear even loud motorcycles.​
Having demonstrated some time back that even brightly coloured and exotic-looking bikes – in my case an almost fluorescent Benelli 1130 Tornado Tre – don’t get through to drivers, this is not welcome news. A potplant in a Volvo (old Australian expression for gormless drivers) moved into my lane and almost punched me into the side of a bus. What’s left?​
Interestingly enough, in that particular case loud pipes might have helped – see below. But let’s start from the beginning.​
We all know that motorcycles are far too often overlooked in traffic. True, though sad. We also know that noisy pipes alert drivers to our presence. Even more sadly, not true. Don’t believe me? I have proof, albeit from Romania.​
The Romanian Pro-Motorcycle Association for the National Development of Motorcycling, together with the Polytechnic University of Bucharest and the noise emission specialist Enviro Consult, has conducted a study to determine how much of the motorcycle noise actually reaches the car.​
Specifically, the question they wanted answered was where and when the motorcycle becomes audible in the passenger compartment. They found it difficult to measure this while driving with any scientific accuracy, so the research group conducted the tests while the car was stationary – but with the motorcycle at maximum revs.​
At the same time, the car’s engine was kept between 2,500 and 3,000 revs and the radio was set to 20 decibels, a volume considered normal. The motorcycle was then placed first 15 metres behind the car, then ten metres, then next to the car and finally in front of the car.​
So what we (or rather the Romanians) have here is a stationary noise measurement much like the one used by police, only at maximum motorcycle engine speed with a correspondingly extremely high sound pressure. Sound pressure is the aggregate of all frequencies.​
If you think that the sound of a motorcycle howling on the rev limiter only 15 metres behind a car would make the driver snap his head around, you are sadly mistaken. The motorcycle is simply not audible at 15 metres behind the car, which is the minimum distance between vehicles recommended in urban areas. Things are no better at a distance of ten metres. The combination of the sound insulation of the car and the sound pressure of the frequencies it generates itself, including that 20 dB radio, is greater than the noise of the motorcycle.​
Below this distance, the motorcycle slowly becomes audible in the car. But here’s the rub: that is only in terms of sound pressure, the total of all frequencies. It does not mean that the driver can pick the sound of the motorcycle out of the noise that reaches him. This is a particular problem because even then, only very low frequencies arrive in the interior and these are not only more difficult for the human ear to identify but also even more difficult to isolate among other frequencies.​
Finally, with the front wheel of the motorcycle level with the rear wheel of the car, the sound pressure of the motorcycle becomes clearly audible in the car for the first time. Only the loudest of the six bikes tested could be heard, however, and its exhaust put out 110 decibels. So even when they were moving up level with the car, the other five motorcycles are still far below the audible limit.​
In other words, the average motorcycle will only really become audible in the interior of the car when it is level with it. By then it is pretty much too late to abort a lane change or any other move on the part of the driver. So the window in which loud pipes might be considered to save lives is quite small.​
Here is some background to the study. The difference between the loudest and quietest motorcycles tested at maximum revs was just under 30 decibels, in other words the perceived difference in loudness was some ten times.​
On average, the difference in sound pressure in front of and behind the motorcycle was measured at seven decibels. Behind the motorcycle, then, the noise is perceived as more than twice as loud as in front of the motorcycle. That’s a problem when you want drivers in front of you to be aware of your presence – and presumably not annoy the drivers behind you too much.​
Although that problem might not be too bad because the sound pressure inside the car decreases again when compared to the measurement next to the car. Cars are apparently designed to be as soundproof as possible from the front.​
This is not good. But all is not lost. My own research, conducted intermittently over several decades, suggests that there are auditory and visual cues that work to keep riders safe on the road. Unfortunately these include not only aggressively loud pipes but also a scratched flat black half-helmet, tight-fitting shades over a grey beard (a long one on the blokes), colours worn over scuffed leather jackets and stained jeans.​
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Loud pipes on a Sportster I had in the 1980's defiantly saved my life 100%. I was doing 60 on Huntington boulevard near Pasadena in SoCal and a car stopped at the stop light then proceeded thru the red light, It was 50 feet in front of me. The only thing I could do was move to the left lane and get on it as hard as I could. The guy slammed his brakes on as I was passing in front of him and just touched the exhaust pipe and I was able to keep the bike up without going down. When I turned around planning to kill him he was already out of the car nearly in tears. He said that he just spaced it and never did see me until I passed in front of him, but heard the bike thats why he slammed the brakes on. I calmed down and he gave me a long heart felt apology and $300.00 to cover any damage and not make a police report. Maybe new cars are different but it worked in 1988.
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My buddy had a harley with loud pipes. He was cruising down a main street in town when a car pulled out infront of him. He hit head on into her driver's side fender and went flying over the handlebars and her car and landed in the lane. He was physically alright but was knocked out for a few days. Turns out his head hitting the pavement (helmet on) rattled a few screws around inside and left him with permanent brain trauma. He still works but it left him with longterm damage. People nowadays are too distracted while driving. Whether it be yapping on their cell phone, concentrating on their hands free navigation, drinking a coffee, putting on lipstick, or whatever else distracts them. That's why I gave up restoring my goldwing and decided that I will never ride again. Not because of my abilities but because I just don't trust everyone else on the road.