Are Loud Pipes an Effective Survival Strategy?

copyright Ken Condon 2018

Like politics and religion, it’s usually a very bad idea to bring up the Loud Pipes debate in mixed company. But, this website is here to discuss such topics, because your well being is at stake.

Before you assume this is an anti- or pro-loud pipes opinion piece, rest assured that I am sympathetic to both sides of the argument. I’ve had bikes with loud exhaust and stock exhaust.

My intent for writing this article is to shed light on the effectiveness of certain strategies for surviving the streets on a motorcycle, including loud pipes.

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Sirens, and Horns

First, let’s discuss whether noise is effective at getting drivers’ attention. Before that can be answered fully, we must first define “attention”. A loud noise intended as an alert, such as a siren (EMS or law enforcement), a fire alarm, or a horn is perceived as something that requires attention and triggers immediate response.

The appropriate response depends on the noise. A siren heard while driving means you need to pull over. A blaring horn means you may be about to collide with another car (or the other driver is just being a dick). Either way, you snap out of any stupor you may be in and frantically look for the problem.

A siren blasting from a municipal building means a risk to the public, like an approaching weather or seismic event. Even this depends on where you live. In Kansas it’s likely to be a tornado. In California, think earthquake. It also depends on where you are. In a movie theater this may mean fire. You get it.

An Example

Did you know that drivers colliding with stationary construction crews is a big problem? Hard to believe, but I guess it’s a thing.

Several methods have been tried to mitigate this all-too-common problem with the latest being sound. An article from the Iowa DOT talks about their trial using audible attenuators to alert drivers of construction crews in the roadway. Read the article here.

Below is an accompanying video demonstrating the attenuator. Take a look. I’ll wait.

Loud Exhaust

Many of you will take this attenuator solution as justification to run loud pipes.

But, hold on. There are differences between this system and loud motorcycle exhausts.

Noise Direction
Considering that exhaust noise is directed rearward, is a loud exhaust more effective in this situation than being seen?

One big difference between the attenuator and loud bike exhaust noise is that the attenuator is directed toward the driver and is accompanied by bright flashing lights. The sound from a motorcycle exhaust is mostly directed rearward.

Sirens and horns are pointed forward for a reason. And when you consider that most multi-vehicle motorcycle crashes come from in front, not behind, you can see the argument against loud pipes being responsible for saving lives.

Also, sound bounces off buildings, etc and is absorbed by vegetation, etc. This means that locating the source of the sound is tough. And the time it takes for a driver to identify your location could be way too late.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Modern cars are well-insulated from sound.

Another argument against loud pipes is that even the loudest exhaust may not be heard and then responded to in time. This is because cars are sound-insulated to the degree that moderately loud music or an AC fan on high can mask, mute or muffle the sound until it is just part of the background noise.

An open window certainly helps in this regard, but almost every vehicle on the road today has efficient air conditioning, which means fewer and fewer people drive with windows open.

Loud pipes are seen (and heard) on sport bikes, as well as cruisers.

OK. Let’s assume that your loud pipes alert a driver that you and your bike is in the vicinity. But, to avoid a collision requires the driver to know exactly where you are. Knowing you’re in the vicinity isn’t enough.

An example is a driver traveling in the same direction (you’re not riding in a drivers blind spot, right?) not being able to see you and then cutting you off. Unfortunately, your loud exhaust noise won’t tell him or her whether they can change lanes or not. They may look first, but maybe not.

One scenario that was pointed out to me that may justify loud(er) pipes is when in very slow traffic (think L.A.) and you are lane splitting. At these slow speeds it’s possible that a driver could hear a bike approaching from behind and will think twice about changing lanes. But, thankfully most riders don’t have to endure (or at least avoid) that extreme traffic situation, which brings us back to questioning th validity of the loud pipes strategy.

Mixed Meaning

Let’s assume that loud exhaust systems can get attention. But what exactly is the noise conveying? It’s not telling drivers’ to pull over or run for cover, so what do we expect drivers to do exactly?

A Reliable Solution: Be More Visible

If your real goal for having loud pipes is to get drivers’ attention so they don’t cut you off or crash into you, then the arguments made in this article suggest you’d be wise to consider other (or additional) strategies. Here are some suggestions that are likely to be effective.

Bright Clothing

Now, I know that hi-viz jackets, vests and helmets may not be your thing. But, you don’t have to go all HAZMAT to become more visible. Harley-Davidson predictably sells mostly black jackets to satisfy their traditional customer base, however look beyond the badass blackness and you can find a few more visible options.

Those of you not as encumbered by traditional style requirements have many options available to you, including the aforementioned hi-viz, but also white or bright colored gear that looks both sporty and stylish…and helps you be seen better in traffic. Check out this Scorpion jacket at Twisted Throttle.

Lane Positioning
Lane position strategies are effective for helping drivers see you.

One of the MOST effective tools for being seen and avoiding crashes is effective lane positioning.

Select lane positions that put you in open view so drivers can see you. This means not tailgating the car or truck in front and riding in the left or right portion of your lane to make sure drivers waiting to turn into or across your lane can clearly see you. It’s up to you to select lane positions that put you in plain view.

Even if you are in plain sight, don’t assume drivers see you. There’s this thing called “motion-induced blindness” where stationary objects disappear when surrounded by a moving background, such as busy traffic. Get drivers’ attention my moving within your lane. You can simply change lane positions, or do a slight weave as you approach.

Horn

Perhaps a train horn will do the job. Notice the motor mounted behind the backrest that powers the horn.

You can rightly argue that a horn is in the same category as loud pipes. But, there is a difference. Unlike loud exhaust, a piercing horn has a more commanding meaning than the noise from loud pipes (yes, even from a “barking” throttle blip). Remember earlier when I talked about how the types of sounds communicate different meaning? Yeah, That.

The horn on most motorcycles is anemic at best and unless you fit an aftermarket blaster on your bike, you can only rely on this being effective at low speeds. Check out aftermarket horns at Twisted Throttle.

Your Choice

Before you get all cranky thinking I’m not on your side. I believe that any added tool for being seen is worthwhile.

However, (you knew this was coming, right?) loud pipes can’t be relied on for adding the kind of conspicuity necessary to avoid collisions…visibility. People have to see you!

I’m no scientist, and this is not based on empirical evidence, but experience and logic suggest that relying primarily on loud pipes for visibility is a weak strategy. Does it help? To a degree. But, in my opinion, the effectiveness is trumped by the risk of discrimination from authorities, the disdain from your neighbors and the perpetuation of the outlaw image puts us in risk of heavy handed regulation.

Of course I know that this won’t convince anyone already enamored with the badass sound of their bike to dig up the stock exhaust from the basement. However, I hope this article gives you pause before you repeat the old saw “Loud Pipes Save Lives” without at least considering that this strategy may have a relatively minor effect on preventing crashes.

Admit it…loud pipes make your bike sound better and is a way to experience the raw, visceral power of your awesome machine. But, ask yourself if perhaps they aren’t as effective as most people think at saving lives.

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Schooling the Public

This what people see that prompts them to ask "Aren't you hot?"
This is what people see that prompts them to ask “Aren’t you hot?”

I thought it might be fun to share a sampling of statements I hear often from Mr. and Mrs. Non-riding Public, along with my usual response. Perhaps these statements are familiar to you, too. And maybe your responses are similar to mine. Whatever.

#1: “Aren’t You Hot?”

This is directed toward the fact that I’m wearing a jacket, riding pants, gloves, etc. This question often makes me scratch my head, because I assume that people understand the concept of wind chill factor and can imagine that the gear I have on is perfect, not only for comfort, but also for protection.

Yeah, they don’t seem to understand that riding gear is a compromise. Even the best vented gear can be hot even at speed, but I won’t ride without protection. Grasping that concept seems a bit too difficult for Mr. and Ms. Public without some patient education.

My response: “Not once I’m rolling over 30mph.” “Besides, I need the protection, just in case”.

Loud pipes are the result of riders who want to be loud.
Loud pipes are the result of riders who want to be loud.

#2: “I Don’t Like Motorcycles…They’re too Loud”

This usually comes up in conversation at parties when I disclose that I am a motorcycle rider. I can fully understand the non-motorcyclists’ reaction to obnoxiously loud pipes. Even as a career rider, I am annoyed and barely tolerant of loud motorcycles. Imagine the lack of tolerance Mr. and Ms. Public has for riders who invade their peace and quiet.

My response: “I don’t like loud motorcycles either.” “Do you know that motorcycles aren’t loud when they are ridden out of the showroom?”

Stunned silence usually follows as they try to comprehend that someone would take a perfectly good (quiet) motorcycle and make it obnoxious…on purpose.

I get it. A motorcycle that makes no sound seems to lack a visceral depth that most riders value. But, personally, I’ve come to value not invading others’ auditory space with my exhaust, so I keep my street bike exhausts stock.

I recently rode an electric “Zero” motorcycle and I can tell you that the total lack of engine sound did not take away from the awesome performance and  unique experience of this torquey, fun machine. I contend that excessive noise detracts from riding enjoyment, rather than enhances it.

And then there is the “Loud Pipes Save Lives” theory. While I understand that loud pipes can get attention, making a bunch of racket is NOT a reliable way to get people to avoid you. Lane position and other strategies that allow you to be SEEN are much more effective ways to avoid a mishap.

Besides, sound is directional, so exhausts pointed rearward are of little benefit when the most likely collision scenario involves an approaching vehicle turning left across your lane at an intersection.

Yes, motorcycling exposes us to risk, which is why we wear protection.
Yes, motorcycling exposes us to risk, which is why we wear protection.

#3: “Aren’t Motorcycles Dangerous?”

This question needs no explanation, except that people who ask are implying that because it is risky to ride a motorcycle, that I must be a person who exercises poor judgment. These are often people who value safety and therefore distance themselves from risk…at least things they deem risky, which is most likely things they don’t understand.

Not everyone who asks this question is afraid of risk. Sometimes they are just responding to a preconceived notion of how dangerous motorcycles are. This deduction comes from horror stories heard from acquaintances and from sensational news reports. We all have prejudices based on indirect knowledge and assumptions. These people are simply reacting to what they think is the truth.

Unfortunately, it is true that riding a motorcycle is dangerous. So, how do I respond?

My response: “Yes, riding a motorcycle isn’t for everybody. If you’re not a person who is committed to being as skillful and conscientious as possible, then you probably don’t belong on a bike.”

I guess I'm not a real biker...I have no tattoos.
I guess I’m not a real biker…I have no tattoos.

#4: “Where are Your Tattoos?”

Really? Yep. This silly question usually comes from the mouths of people who make assumptions about what motorcycle riders “look like” and probably don’t personally know a motorcycle rider, or don’t know a motorcycle rider who does not have tattoos.

The “biker types” get the attention of the general public because they make a lot of noise and go out of their way to look tough with their ink and leather “costumes”. These bikers get Mr and Ms. Public’s attention so that their perception is that motorcycle riders dress the way the loud riders dress.

I challenge the ignorance of stereotypes by looking “normal”. Sure, I have my own costume, but it is that of a rider who embraces a motorcycling lifestyle as a sport, daily transportation, and a way to see faraway places.

My response: “Shut the Hell Up.” Just Kidding. I might joke about having ink in places I can’t show in public and say it in a way that makes them question their assumptions of what some riders look like. And then I walk away.

Three people, three motorcycles.
Yes, women ride their own motorcycles.

#5: “How Do You Get Three People on one Motorcycle or do you have a sidecar?”

This question was directed toward my wife when she, our then 10 year old daughter, and I walked into a restaurant on a family motorcycle trip several years ago with all of our riding gear in hand. Caroline hesitated for a moment in disbelief as she finally realized that the person assumed that women do not ride their own motorcycles, therefore the only explanation must be that we all somehow fit on one motorcycle or that a sidecar was the answer. A woman on her own bike never crossed their mind.

Her response: “I ride my own motorcycle, and have been for over ten years.”


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The Top 2 Survival Tips That Will Save Your Life

Both speed was and lack of visibility caused this crash.
Both speed was and Lack of Visibility caused this crash.

I know what you’re saying. “You’re telling me that there are only 2 things I need to do to survive riding on the street?” You betcha. So, here is the caveat to this sensational statement; there are more like 1 Gazillion things you need to know to be the safest rider you can be. But, I don’t have that much time and you’d be bored by the time I got to number 15,000. So, I’m going with my top 2.

And with no further ado, here they are. The envelope. please.

#1 Being “Speed Smart”

#2 Being Visible

Of all the things you can and should know about riding a motorcycle, these two strategies will allow you to avoid 80 to 90% of the most common situations that lead to motorcycle crashes. I hear you yelling at your laptop or smartphone saying “What about [INSERT YOUR FAVORITE STRATEGY HERE]”. I understand… really. There is way more to know to avoid becoming roadkill than just these two strategies. But, I contend that most close calls and crashes can be avoided if you follow my suggestions and focus first on these two strategies. Let me elaborate.

All photos © Ken Condon


Top Motorcycle Survival Tip #1: Be Speed Smart

Jeannine being Speed Smart
Jeannine being Speed Smart

Being “Speed Smart” doesn’t necessarily mean sticking to the posted speed limit. I’m no angel when it comes to ignoring ridiculous speed limit signs, especially when the payoff is worth the risk of a ticket ( a great section of twisty tarmac with little traffic). No, I’m talking about being smart about when and where you wick it up. You can avoid a majority of close calls if you just keep the throttle under control. Here’s how.

Ride at “Expected” Speeds

It’s important to ride close to the marked speed limit when riding through town centers, and whenever you are near other drivers, especially when riding through intersections. Riding at a speed that is greater than is expected will likely result in the driver pulling in front of you, thinking he or she has time to go. This is largely because a motorcycle has a narrow frontal area, which makes it more difficult for drivers to judge your approach speed and distance.

Ride Slow in a Slow Environment

One of the most common reasons motorcycle riders crash is because they ride faster than the environment will safely allow. Riding at the speed limit makes total sense when there is a lot of traffic, but what about when the road opens up? It may be tempting to go WFO, but no matter how much you wish the road were a racetrack, it is not! You can get away with excessive speed for a while, but some day it will bite you. I can almost guarantee it. Really fast sport riding belongs on a racetrack, dummy.

Even if you are a racetrack hero, you must understand that the unpredictable nature of the street does not allow you to exercise your full cornering prowess. With hazards such as road surface hazards, unexpected changes in radius and camber, or other vehicles crossing into your lane you can easily exceed the limits of the environment even though you may be nowhere near your personal limits.

Cornering Correctly: Slow in, Fast out

The vast majority of single-vehicle crashes are the result of riders failing to negotiate a curve and a common reason for this is a rider entering a corner at a speed that is too fast for the conditions or for the rider’s ability. The best strategy is to slow to a conservative speed and then gradually accelerate when you are sure it is safe to do so. Keep in mind that you can always get on the gas, but you can’t go back in time to enter the turn at a slower speed.

Respect Time and Space

Still not convinced just how significant speed is to keeping you safe? Then consider the timing and circumstances of a typical 30 mph crash. At that speed you are traveling at 44 feet per second (1 mph = 1.47 ft/sec). Getting a motorcycle stopped at 30 mph takes just over two seconds and requires about 35 feet of space. But, braking distances include more than just the time and space to physically stop your motorcycle. It also includes “thinking time” and “reaction time”. At 30 mph you can count on using about .7 seconds or 31 feet to realize that there is a problem. It then takes you another .3 seconds or 13 feet to react by rolling off the throttle and reaching for the brakes. That means you traveled 44 feet before even touching the brakes. Finally, it takes you about 2.2 seconds or 35 feet (with a typical deceleration rate achieved by the average rider) to bring the motorcycle to a halt. Add this “braking time” to the “thinking time” and “reaction time” and you’ll need a total of 3.2 seconds and 79 feet with which to stop.


Top Motorcycle Survival Tip #2: Be Visible

"SMIDSY"= "Sorry Mate, I Didn't See Ya"
“SMIDSY”= “Sorry Mate, I Didn’t See Ya”

The most common phrase uttered by drivers who are involved in a motorcycle crash is; “I didn’t see him”. It’s easy to blame the driver for being inattentive. After all, texting, NAV systems, and other distractions are vying for drivers’ attention…you know who you are. While this is a reality on today’s roads, too many riders fail to recognize their role in being visible, choosing to wear dark colors and riding in a way that hides them from other drivers.

Even being seen is not as reliable as we would like. Most motorcyclists have stories of drivers pulling out in front of them even though the driver was looking directly at them. What would cause a driver to proceed if the rider was in plain sight? It’s common for a driver’s brain to dismiss the appearance of a relatively insignificant (small) vehicle (motorcycle) on the roadway and pull out without ever “seeing” the motorbike.

Use Effective Lane Positioning

In traffic, it’s important to constantly evaluate your ability to see and for others to see you. Poor lane position is a factor that can prevent you from being seen and seeing hazards. This includes not having sufficient following distance. Ample following distance provides a wider angle of view to see past the vehicle and allow other drivers to see you.

Proper lane positioning also includes your location within the width of your lane. Motorcycle riders have the option of riding in the left, center or right portion of the lane. This gives you the ability to place your bike where you can see farther ahead and where other drivers can see you. Exactly what is the best lane position? In many situations, riding in the left/center of your lane makes the most sense. This position allows you to see past the vehicle ahead and gives you a good angle of view of the oncoming lane.  Certain situations require you to alter this position, such as an oncoming vehicle threatening to cross the centerline.

Lane position changes continually depending on the road surface, other drivers, and your angle of view.

Loud Pipes

Basic science says that sound is not a reliable source of information. Sure, loud pipes increase the likelihood that drivers will know you are in the vicinity, but don’t be fooled into thinking that sound will help a driver locate where you are in traffic. This is why installing loud pipes is not a great strategy for increasing safety.

A much more reliable strategy is to be more visible. A driver who sees you and is able to accurately judge your speed and distance is much less likely to pull out in front of you. The importance of using strategies for being seen cannot be overemphasized. Unfortunately, too many riders don’t seem to understand this.


There are lots of other tips that are important for surviving on a motorcycle like don’t ride drunk or stoned, be attentive, etc. But. if you can follow these two strategies I outlined, you are well on your way to making it home at the end of a great day of riding.

OK. Now it’s your turn.

I know you’ve been chompin’ at the bit to tell the world what you think is the most important tip for surviving. So, let’s hear your comments.
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