Common Tread

City plans crackdown on loud motorcycles

Mar 12, 2018

Backlash against loud pipes is brewing in the "Live Free or Die" state.

In response to complaints about motorcycle noise, the chief of the Portsmouth Police Department in New Hampshire said two officers will be trained to use sound-measuring equipment to ticket riders whose motorcycles violate state noise laws. Chief Robert Merner told the Portsmouth Herald the officers will be ready for this summer's riding season.

Anyone who has ridden in New Hampshire knows the popularity of large and often loud cruisers in that state, and the numbers swell hugely during Laconia Motorcycle Week. Of course there are federal and state laws regulating noise, but as all of us know, they are rarely enforced. Portsmouth plans to change that, at least in one city.

What's the standard for "too loud?"

New Hampshire's motorcycle sound law, like many other state's laws, is based on the SAE J2825 test, which was updated in 2009. It is the basis of model legislation proposed by the American Motorcyclist Association for jurisdictions that want to control excessive motorcycle noise, because it provides an objective, standardized way of measuring exhaust sound.

The standard allows sound levels of 92 decibels at idle and up to a maximum of 100 decibels for three- and four-cylinder engines and up to 96 decibels for other engines. Measurements are taken at specified rpm levels with the testing equipment placed 20 inches from the exhaust at a 45-degree angle.

The advantage of the SAE J2825 standard — and the reason the AMA embraced it — is that it provides a clear-cut standard instead of leaving it up to law enforcement to decide subjectively if a vehicle is too loud. A properly trained and equipped police officer could pull over a motorcyclist believed to have an illegally loud exhaust, conduct a test in minutes, and then issue a ticket or send the rider along. What the Portsmouth police may not be able to do is pull over all motorcyclists for testing. A law is currently pending in the New Hampshire legislature to prohibit motorcycle-only checkpoints, a focus of the AMA's lobbying in recent years. Chief Merner said that was never his intention and the plan is to target loud bikes individually.

Noise is a divisive issue within motorcycling, as well as a common source of complaints from non-riders.

"The AMA believes that few other factors contribute more to misunderstanding and prejudice against the motorcycling community than excessively loud motorcycles," reads the AMA's position statement on the issue. It adds, however, that the organization is opposed to "singling out motorcyclists with ordinances and laws that are unfair, impractical and unenforceable."

Of course Portsmouth is not the first community to try to take enforcement into its own hands. One widely cited example is the city of Elkhart, Indiana, which began enforcing noise laws. The city had a full-time officer patrolling in an unmarked car, looking for violations (and not just motorcycles). City officials said the program not only led to $1.6 million in fines but also yielded many arrests for drug and weapons violations and outstanding warrants. When the police department had to cut personnel, however, the full-time noise officer was one of the casualties. Citations were still issued, but far fewer.

Laws on the books are one thing, but enforcing them — fairly and evenly with the right training and equipment — is a more complicated matter.