by Rick Barrett

Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel

December 15, 2009

A national group opposed to noise pollution has blasted Harley-Davidson riders who ride loud bikes, saying they’re bullies who ruin the quality of life for others and inflict senseless pain on our ears.

Noise Free America also says the Wisconsin Legislature has won its “Noisy Dozen” award for a resolution declaring Harley as the state’s official motorcycle.

The resolution, Assembly Bill 596, is scheduled for a committee hearing Thursday at noon. Twenty legislators are sponsors of the bill that would require the Wisconsin Blue Book to list Harley-Davidson as the state’s honorary bike.

Noise Free America says the legislation is offensive to its ears.

“Instead of honoring noise terrorism, our representatives should protect us from the awful noise of Harley riders,” said George Atwood, a Noise Free America member from Milton.

The group, based in Albany, N.Y., says it has 50 chapters and several thousand members. Two years ago, it gave the Noisy Dozen award to Madison city officials for turning a deaf ear to noise complaints, including loud parties and train horns.

Now the group has turned up the volume on Harley-Davidson riders, rather than motorcyclists in general.

“Harley is more than a motorcycle,” Atwood said. “It is a state of mind, an idea, an emotion, a brand cult. Unfortunately, the Harley cult has come to represent disorder and noise.”

Atwood says the throaty roar of an unmuffled bike might bug him more than it would some people, but that doesn’t excuse offensive, lawless behavior.

“People don’t have to look at Harleys, but they can’t avoid hearing them,” he said.

“The noise stresses people. It ruins the quality of life in our neighborhoods, and it frightens and intimidates people. It leads to hearing loss, higher medical costs, lost productivity and loss of peace of mind,” Atwood said.

But judging from the thousands of people who lined the streets to watch Harley-Davidson’s 105th anniversary bike parade in 2008, the noise couldn’t have been too bad, according to Harley enthusiasts.

And the image of Harley riders as lawless hooligans stems largely from Hollywood movies.

“Wow. I didn’t know I was that bad,” said Jeff Haig, a retired police chief and member of the Kettle Moraine Harley-Davidson Owners Group.

Haig said the sound of an unmuffled bike offends him, too, and it gives other motorcyclists a bad name.

“There’s no question that some people go way over the top,” he said. “Personally, I have a set of Screaming Eagle mufflers on my bike that are made by Harley and are a little louder. But they’re street legal and have a nice mellow tone. I think most of us are aware of the noise issue and try to find some balance.”

Harley-Davidson motorcycles comply with federal and international noise regulations unless the bikes are modified by their owners.

The company has coined phrases such as “throttle down through town” and “thanks for the rumble, not the roar,” which encourage bike-rally participants to ride respectfully in residential neighborhoods.

“We are extremely committed to educating riders on the benefits of riding with respect,” said Harley spokeswoman Amanda Lee.

Milwaukee police officers use their discretion in ticketing motorcyclists with loud exhaust pipes, according to police spokeswoman Anne Schwartz, who said the number of citations issued was not immediately available.

“We have concentrated our efforts on the loud music violations (Operation Bass Busters), which have generated the most complaints to the MPD and to aldermen regarding noise,” she said.

Legislators say they have no remorse about nominating Harley-Davidson as the state’s official motorcycle, putting it in the same league as the state song, ballad, dance, beverage, tree, flower, bird, insect and animal.

Harley is one of Wisconsin’s largest private employers, and its activities bring thousands of tourists here.

“When I hear loud motorcycle pipes, I think of people having fun and I think of jobs,” said State Sen. Jeff Plale (D-South Milwaukee), a resolution sponsor.

Noise Free America’s complaints are “ridiculous in the extreme,” according to Plale.

“I am proud to accept their Dirty Dozen award, and I look forward to hanging it on my wall,” he said.