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Motorcycle owners often install aftermarket exhaust systems that increase the volume of their bikes' engine noise.Ion Barbu/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

My neighbour has an incredibly noisy motorcycle. It’s louder than motorbikes I’ve seen at races. He says it’s a safety issue, and he needs to be loud so cars can hear him on the road. Is there any truth to this? – Robert, Montreal

Some bikers make a lot of noise about needing to be noisy. But one motorcycle safety expert thinks they’re talking out of their tailpipes. “People who want to have obnoxiously loud exhaust systems just want to be loud,” says Bryan Lowes, a Vancouver-based motorcycle safety consultant. “They’re not doing it for safety reasons.”

Transport Canada sets maximum noise limits on all new motorcycles sold here. It’s about 86 decibels, Lowes says. That’s roughly as noisy as a lawnmower.

“That’s what you’ll get on any stock motorcycle, even if the exhaust has worn a bit,” Lowes says. “My wife can’t even hear me coming or going.”

The only way to make bikes noisier is to modify the exhaust system, Lowes says. That means switching to louder tailpipes.

“All the noise complaints are for people who replace the stock equipment with aftermarket parts that they say will theoretically make it perform better,” Lowes says. “But the aftermarket systems that actually produce improved engine performance are extremely expensive.”

Instead, owners often put on cheaper pipes that boost noise but not performance. And even the pricier pipes have limits on what they can do.

“On my bike, they would cost $1,500, and they would improve [horsepower and torque] by three to five per cent at the most,” Lowes says.

Pipe down?

In Quebec, it’s illegal to modify an exhaust system to make it noisier. On top of that, police can ticket owners if a bike is louder than 100 decibels – the equivalent to the sound of a chainsaw – while riding or louder than 92 decibels while idling. Fines range from $200 to $300, but Quebec provincial police have said that catching noisy bikes is not a priority. In most other provinces, motorcycle noise levels are regulated solely by local bylaws.

While some cities, such as Edmonton, use noise metres to record specific decibel levels, others, including Calgary and Vancouver, let police officers decide if a bike sounds too loud.

Montreal also has its own vehicle noise bylaws. Breaking them comes with a $151 fine. Since March 15, there have been four tickets issued for noisy motorcycles, which is fewer tickets than the same period last year, Montreal police say.

Could noisy bikes actually be safer on the road? Potentially, says the Canada Safety Council (CSC).

“Many cars on the road today are designed to reduce cabin noise, which can also have the side effect of dampening traffic noise,” said Lewis Smith, CSC manager of national projects, in an e-mail. “Combine that with the ambient noise of an air conditioning unit at full power and the radio at full blast, and it’s reasonable to think someone could miss a quiet motorcycle in their blind spot.” Lowes hasn’t heard of any studies showing that a modified exhaust prevents collisions. The Hurt Report, a 1981 U.S. motorcycle safety study, found that bikes with modified exhausts were actually slightly more likely to get into crashes.

Seen not heard?

Lowes, a former executive director of the B.C. Safety Council, says roughly “90 per cent” of crashes with vehicles happen when a motorcyclist hits something in front of them, such as a car suddenly turning left. He argues that noise likely wouldn’t make a difference in those kinds of crashes

“The exhaust points backwards, so the sound levels are loudest behind you, not in front of you,” Lowes says. “Noise is not going to save you except in very rare circumstances.”

For instance, noise might alert a distracted driver that you’re beside him, Lowes says.

“But you’d have to be so close for them to hear you,” he says. “In 60 years of motorcycling, I’ve been hit from the side once – it’s rare.” There are better, quieter ways to make sure drivers know you’re there, including going the speed limit, keeping enough space from vehicles and wearing brighter colours.

“Drop back so everybody can see you and don’t dress in black,” Lowes says. “That’s going to protect you more than being loud.”

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