"Loud pipes save lives."
"Gotta make sure they hear you coming!"
"I can't tell you how many times a driver has noticed me because of my loud exhaust."
"They aren't just cool. It tells people you're there."
The "loud pipes save lives" argument is one I see or hear on almost a weekly basis. It's usually coming from some guy on a Harley or retro Triumph, though the sportbike guys are jumping on as of late. I honestly can’t tell if people really believe it, or it's just a nice justification when someone says their bike is too loud, but I think it's the second dumbest thing commonly heard from riders. (If you're wondering, the first is that 600cc supersports are beginner bikes.)
Let's start with some basic physics and a little rationality. Your exhaust is pointed backwards and by the nature of you traveling forward, you're actually leaving the sound behind you as you move forward. If that concept is confusing, think of the sound of a fire truck passing you with its siren blaring. The siren is pointed forward because the purpose is to warn driver’s the truck is approaching from behind. The next time you hear one coming, notice that it’s louder when it’s coming toward you than when it’s going away.
Now apply that to motorcycle crashes. The one comprehensive, reliable study of motorcycle crashes in this country is the well known "Hurt Report," which is now nearly 40 years old. Harry Hurt and his team found that 64.9 percent of multiple-vehicle motorcycle crashes were the fault of the car driver and “the typical accident in this category is portrayed by the automobile in traffic turning left into the path of the oncoming motorcycle.” A lot has changed in 40 years, but one thing that I think we can all agree hasn’t changed is that the car drivers are still pulling out in front of us. That means the bigger danger is still ahead, not behind, but most of the racket from loud pipes is just pissing off the people behind you, while doing very little to warn those in front of you.
Your headlights and horn, however, are pointed ahead. If you really were so concerned with an upgrade that could save your life, you’d add aftermarket auxiliary lights and upgrade your horn. But then you’d run the risk of looking like a dork instead of sounding like a badass.
Secondly, look at the cars around you. If loud pipes ever helped make you safer, that's less true today. My first car was a 1986 Volkswagen Fox. Basically, a go-cart with doors and a roof. Every scrap of road noise bled into the cabin. Today, even my semi-budget Mazda 3 manages to make road noise basically non-existent and it also comes with eight speakers, a six-CD changer, and an auxiliary port for my iPhone, so all I'm likely to hear is my music. In a current luxury car, you'll hear far less, and in the future, maybe nothing at all.
Now, I'm not saying a loud motorcycle has never alerted anyone to your presence. We've all had an experience where a driver has noticed us because of the sound of the bike. Obviously, anything that calls attention to your motorcycle helps today’s distracted drivers notice you’re there between their kids’ screams and bites from their burritos. However, claiming that “loud pipes save lives” while riding around on your brakeless bobber in your T-shirt and novelty helmet just makes you, me, and the rest of the motorcycle community look like morons.
You know what does help people notice you? Wearing hi-viz gear, adding auxiliary lighting to your bike, and upgrading your horn are all great ways to make your presence known. Not only do they do a better job than an aftermarket exhaust, but they also cost a lot less. I should say that if by some chance you are wearing hi-viz gear, riding with auxiliary lights, using an upgraded horn, and have a loud exhaust, I’m willing to give you a pass. You’re both allowed to say “loud pipes save lives,” and disregard everything you just read. You're the unicorn of ATGATT.
I like the sound of a nice set of aftermarket pipes as much as the next guy. So go ahead and buy your loud pipes. Just acknowledge it's for your own enjoyment, and not for some huge concern for safety.