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Why are people complaining about the sound of motorcycles?

In the past weeks we have seen disturbing reports from all over Europe about road closures and other restrictions as a result of complaints about motorcycle sound. FEMA’s Dolf Willigers asks: Is there a war going on against motorcyclists?

Photograph courtesy of BVDM

Recently I received a message with the question if there is a war going on against motorcyclists. One could think so. First there was a motion that was adopted by the German Bundesrat (Senate) that demands for road closures for motorcycles in the weekends and on public holidays, a sound emission limit of 80 dB(A) in all riding conditions for motorcycles and possibilities to enforce speed limits for motorcycles that go against the constitution. Then there was this road closure of several well-known roads in Austria for motorcycles with a standing sound emission of more than 95 dB(A). And we saw articles in newspapers and items on the television news in the Netherlands in March about the annoyance caused by motorcyclists. More recently we saw the large number of complaints that our British member organizations received about sound emissions from motorcycles.

Last year a ‘sound camera‘ was introduced in France because of alleged excessive sound emissions from motorcycles and the British Department for Transport has also announced that they will install these ‘acoustic cameras’. Last year it was also stated that motorcycles had by far the highest external costs per person kilometre in a (very questionable) study by CE Delft that was ordered by the European Commission about the internalization of external costs of transport modes (say, the costs for the society caused by the different transport modes that are not paid for by the users themselves). The main cause, according to this report, was the sound emission of motorcycles.

Before we draw any conclusions, we should look at the backgrounds. Noise is seen by organizations like the World Health Organisation and the European Commission as a health issue with a large impact. Research shows that too much noise has a negative impact on sleep and causes heath- and other health problems. It is also a growing problem, and transport is seen as one of the major factors. The number of cars, motorcycles, trucks, agricultural tractors, airplanes and trains has grown enormously in the past decades and although the engines make less sound than they did in the past, especially with higher speeds the engine sound is not the biggest contributor to the sound emission. Other factors like the tyres are, with the exception of motorcycles, agricultural tractors and trucks. And although transport is an important factor, it is not the only one. On a sunny day you hear lawn mowers everywhere, power drillss, grinders, sanders, high pressure sprayers, leaf blowers and other machines that often have a very high sound emission. Sound is everywhere and always there, especially when you have the intention to quietly spend your weekend in the sun in your back garden. Nevertheless, you hardly hear people complain about all these other sources of sound, but every spring there are complaints about motorcycles. Why is that?

Photograph courtesy of Biker Union
Source: see footnote

Complaints about motorcycle sound emissions are not new. In Germany, the fight of environmental organizations against motorcycles is longstanding. The ‘Vereinigte Arbeitskreise gegen Motorradlärm’ (united working groups against motorcycle noise) exists since 2005 and is a very active lobby organization against what they see as excessive motorcycle sound emissions. Attempts to introduce legislation against motorcycles, especially motorcycle sound, were seen in the past too. Without success by the way, although the phenomenon of road closures is not new in Germany. In Austria complaints about motorcycle sound emissions are not new either. This resulted in a study for the Tiroler authorities in which the ban of loud motorcycles was advised after 571 residents of the Reutte district in Tirol were interviewed in 2018. An interesting observation in the study was that the respondents considered motorcycle sound emissions much more annoying than that of two-track vehicles. Motorcycle sound emissions with a volume of 40dB was perceived as ‘highly annoying’ by 50% of the respondents (40 dB is the lowest limit of urban ambient sound, compatible with the sound level in a library). The same volume with cars and trucks was only perceived as ‘highly annoying’ by 12% of the respondents. The high-piched sound of light super sport bikes was seen as much more annoying than that of large motorcycles with a low-frequency sound.

‘The perception of sound is very personal and subjective’

If there is indeed a war against motorcycles, it isn’t new and it isn’t everywhere. Many people see motorcycles as dangerous (not only for the riders themselves, but also for other road users) and noisy. The perception of sound is very personal and subjective. The Austrian study suggests that the experience of motorcycle sound is influenced by this perception of motorcycle being dangerous. The fact that only 40 dB motorcycle sound is enough for half the population to get annoyed suggests that it is not only the volume, but also the sound (especially of light super sport bikes) that causes the annoyance. This is something we can’t do much about.

However, the louder the motorcycle, the further away it can be heard. Especially the high vibrations of smaller engines can carry far. The farther sound carries, the more people get annoyed and turn themselves against this annoyance. First against the sound itself, later against all motorcycles. When motorcycles are not socially acceptable anymore then we have a problem and then you could speak of a war against motorcycles. But in the end it’s up to the industry and ourselves: loud noise, caused by too loud motorcycles and by antisocial behaviour (fitting loud pipes, riding with high RPMs) first leads to a growing annoyance and reactions from the public, later also from road authorities, resulting in more road closures and other restrictions.

The fact that the industry still makes motorcycles with a standing sound emission of over 90 dB(A) is disturbing, as is the behaviour of some motorcyclists who don’t seem to be able to understand the consequences of their acts. The solution is simple: motorcycles should be less noisy by design and riders should not fit loud pipes and ride in a normal way..

Written by Dolf Willigers

Top photograph by Wim Taal

Graph: Effects of Motorcycle Noise on Annoyance—A Cross-Sectional Study in the Alps, Christoph Lechner 1,2,*, David Schnaiter 3, Uwe Siebert 1 and Stephan Böse-O’Reilly 1,4,5. Published: 29 February 2020 in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

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