If you live near western South Dakota, you are aware of the love affair between motorcyclists and the long winding roads of the Black Hills. You are also aware of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally that takes place in the first part of August each year. You are even more aware that tourism is South Dakota’s primary industry… after all, we are the Mount Rushmore State. Millions of people visit South Dakota annually, spending hundreds of millions on family vacations.
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally will attract 300,000 to 500,000 people in August alone and will fill every hotel, motel and campground for 200 miles. Many businesses rely on the Rally for the lion’s share of their annual income. But guess what? Many of the visitors ride motorcycles. Guess what else? Harley Davidson and many of their competitors provide motorcycle enthusiasts with aftermarket muffler alternatives designed to turn every motorcyclist into a window-rattling biker. Add all these things together and you get an awesome week of fun, relaxation, riding in the hills, concerts, activities and noise complaints.
You remember the American dream… life, liberty and the pursuit of complete silence. People spend their life savings to buy a home in the Black Hills away from the hassles of the city, and motorcycle noise seems to ruin everything for them. According to them, the noise causes stress, insomnia, headaches and devalues their homes. To make things worse, the police place a low priority on enforcing motorcycle noise violations. I’ve heard every reason possible why this is unacceptable, including this one: “There’s a state law against straight-pipes and you’re not doing your job!” This and similar statements are usually sprinkled with “I pay your wages!”
Let’s look at it from the complainant’s point of view: The South Dakota State Legislature in 1939 was persuaded by their constituents to enact a law requiring mufflers and prohibiting “excessive or unusual” noise. I am guessing this is consistent with the wishes of the people today as well. The law exists so let’s enforce it; it’s easy…right? But laws are created with the intent of solving problems. So what and who is the problem? The problem is in the culture of Rally week and the negative things it brings, like week-old beards, racoon-eyed sunburns, and above all else, loud pipes. It’s hundreds of thousands of visitors trying to live the Rally experience, in one week or less. But when the Rally is over, the local motorcyclists do their best to maintain the noise level. Harley Davidson’s overwhelming success has resulted in a motorcycle in every garage and an aftermarket pipe on a fair percentage of those.
Mufflers are intended to subdue the necessary noise created by an internal combustion engine. There are, after all, explosions occurring inside that engine and the exhaust that comes out after the explosion is loud, so we “muffle” it. The less muffling, the better the performance (this also ups the coolness ratio). In addition to the performance enhancement, some bikers believe the loud noise is a safety issue. “Loud pipes save lives” is a popular slogan (and bumper sticker) but there seems to be a lack of scientific evidence supporting this belief. It’s true you can hear a motorcycle better (of course) if it doesn’t have a muffler, but how does that equate to safety? I guess you would have to ask a believer to get their input. Motorcycles are in fact at a disadvantage on car-dominated roadways because of their smaller size, weight, diminished visibility, and lack of protective surrounding structure (like cars have).
Back to the point: If the excessive noise is a violation of law, and it bothers some people, then why not enforce it? It’s a complicated question and I have spent time on both sides of the argument.
- On one side: It’s a temporary condition. Loud pipes sound like money being pumped into the local economy. The loudness of a motorcycle is only offensive during aggressive driving or rapid acceleration, so we can deal with it when it occurs. There is no reason to interfere with an otherwise law-abiding biker who is putt-putting around town. It’s a behavior issue, not an equipment issue. Would the complainers have the police set-up a road block at the entrance to the city and hand out tickets rather than welcome baskets? It doesn’t really seem like we would be good hosts, acting like this, does it? If one Black Hills city enforces the muffler laws and the others do not, isn’t that city being uninviting to the bikers and sending the message that they are not welcome?
- On the other side: Many states have launched motorcycle noise campaigns so South Dakota doing the same would not be a surprise to the bikers. The noise-complainers have a reasonable expectation of peace and quiet during times when peace and quiet should be expected. It’s true that excessive motorcycle noise usually comes with excessive driving, but apparently there is a great deal of excessive driving. There are ways to accomplish muffler noise enforcement without declaring war on the Hell’s Angels or the regular guy down the street who has a loud pipe. We are in the complaint business, accomplishing this task is not out of our reach.
Here’s the bad news though: we have plenty to do during Rally week. The problem of loud pipes did not develop overnight and it won’t be fixed overnight. It could take years and a substantial marketing campaign to make a dent on the noise during the Rally. Heck, it might even be impossible.
All things considered, I feel strongly on both sides of the argument; it seems our obligation to enforce the laws of the people are in conflict with our desire to be accommodating hosts. Can we still be courteous to our guests and still address the straight pipe? Which is more important – welcoming economy-stimulating bikers or protecting the peace of our residents? I would like to hear from you.