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Loud pipes save lives: fake or fact?

For some motorcyclists noise is a source of pleasure, for others it is a guarantee of safety, stating that ‘loud pipes save lives’. Motorcycle journalist Chloé Gaillard has a different opinion.

Ah, noise… An old debate among riders. And more and more, when it is excessive, a significant nuisance for other road users and residents, to the point of now being placed at the heart of political concerns and threatening our freedom to ride.

According to the latest accident report (2018) from the French National Inter-ministerial Road Safety Observatory (ONISR), 44% of motorcyclists involved in fatal accidents are not responsible. In 63% of these cases, the motorcycle was simply not detected by other vehicles; it is enormous. Thus, in order to guard against this risk, some of us adopt noisier exhausts and/or behaviours that are supposed to enhance our ‘detectability’. Clearly, playing the noise card to be better perceived. This bias gave birth to the famous slogan ‘Loud pipes save lives’. Fortunately, far from being unanimous, this premise is above all questionable.

According to the rules of physics/acoustics, sound emissions propagate in the direction of their exit. Ironically, the vehicle exhausts, motorcycle mufflers included, are installed at the rear, as everyone knows. A motorcycle can therefore be heard as it passes and downstream – unlike the vehicles of firefighters and law enforcement officers who are equipped with sirens at the front, so as to be heard when they pass to navigate their way through traffic. Let’s say it again: the noise follows the bike but does not precede it.

Still according to the ONISR report, in 31% of cases, fatal biker accidents occur in built-up areas. If noisy exhausts do not allow you to be spotted by other users (other than as an annoyance) anticipation remains the best solution to ensure our safety. A few customary precautions could save you: an efficient lighting system, colourful equipment, defensive riding, et cetera. Not to mention, when necessary, the use of the horn – if it is placed towards the front and therefore emits forward, it is good for warning others. The horn is legal and way more bearable than throbbing gas shots, some offer to other road users.

Chloé Gaillard

Often a source of fascination in the motorcycle world, the sound of a silencer is the subject of a real quest, both for riders and manufacturers. Where certain brands commit considerable resources to acoustic research to obtain the perfect match, others readily juggle with standards to approve machines originally producing an excessive sound volume. On the owners’ side, the fitting of adaptable exhausts, not always approved for road use and the removal of the baffles are common practice. If some tend to enhance (in the good sense) the sound, others aspire only to emit excessive noise. As an unfortunate consequence it forms an important threat to our right to circulate and the sustainability of the use of motorized two-wheelers. The current increase in bans on motorbikes in several areas in Europe, are an almost daily reminder of this.

Written by Chloé Gaillard, journalist at Moto Magazine