Q: Seems to me, it’s far more common to hear a motorcycle (and sometimes cars or trucks) from what could be a mile away, than to see one. I don’t think any agency uses decibel meters anymore. I believe the law prohibits modifying the exhaust from stock. So my question is: What enforcement, if any, is afforded to vehicles whose noise rattles the glasses in the cupboard?
A: You have my sympathy. Once I had a neighbor who “upgraded” the muffler on his motorcycle. It might not have been so bad, except that he worked an early morning shift and left around 5 a.m. Soon it became the talk of the neighborhood, and not in a good way. People get grumpy (and I’m the worst of them) when they don’t get their sleep.
And you’re mostly right about the law. The law prohibits an exhaust system that is louder than the original muffler installed on the vehicle. You can go quieter than stock, but not louder.
But I’m going to change the topic. We’re in the midst of a traffic safety crisis. Ten years ago, we had 436 traffic fatalities in Washington. We were concerned then about how many people lost loved ones on our roads. Last year, we had 750 traffic fatalities. In just the last four years, traffic fatalities have increased nearly 40%. And if the trend doesn’t change, 2023 is going to end even worse.
We know that traffic enforcement, when informed by crash data and focused on priority traffic safety issues, changes driver behavior and reduces crashes. And what are the priorities? Here are the top 10, in order, based on their frequency of involvement in fatal crashes: impairment, speeding, young drivers, distraction, unrestrained vehicle occupants, pedestrians and cyclists, motorcyclists, unlicensed drivers, older drivers, and heavy trucks.
Extra-loud motorcycles rank high on the irritation scale, but they’re low on the traffic safety scale. Low, but not zero. A loud muffler can mask critical sounds, such as horns and sirens, that alert drivers to hazards.
A police department that’s prioritizing traffic enforcement based on crash data isn’t going to spend much time chasing down loud vehicles. Most likely, any enforcement action is going to be incidental to a traffic stop for a high-risk behavior. But maybe we shouldn’t expect our police officers to spend their time enforcing vehicle equipment violations.
If we wanted to be more strategic about it, Washington could require a vehicle safety inspection in order to renew a registration. I’ve received enough emails to know there are plenty of folks who would like more enforcement of loud exhausts, tires that stick out past the fenders, super-dark window tint, and non-functional vehicle lighting. Getting every vehicle inspected would be more effective than hoping a police officer has the time and opportunity to make traffic stops for equipment violations, but we’d have to decide it’s worth it to subject ourselves to the cost involved in setting up and participating in an inspection program.
Or, if the owner of the loud motorcycle is your neighbor, you could have a friendly conversation, which is what I did. Turns out, he thought his exhaust was too loud, too, and he swapped it back to a quieter muffler.
Of course, most of the time you don’t have the opportunity for a neighborly conversation, and even if you did, your neighbor might actually like the volume of their vehicle and be resistant to any suggestion to quiet it down. If you’re on good terms with your neighbor, it’s at least worth a try, but I offer no guarantees.
Doug Dahl is the communications director the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.