by David Montgomery

Rapid City Journal

August 9, 2011

It’s the sound of Sturgis.

Puttering, humming, purring, thrumming or roaring – when hundreds of thousands of motorcycles descend on the Black Hills for the annual Sturgis rally, they make themselves known to area ears.

And that’s just how many motorcyclists like it.

“I think the louder, the better,” said Gerald Roberts, a motorcycle owner from Minot, N.D. “It sounds rough, like an animal does – pretty manly.”

“The motor deserves a little bit of sound,” said Jim Spicer, a biker from Lowell, Ind.

Lance Jagger, a motorcyclist from Bryce Canyon, Utah, said loud pipes are essential for safety, with drivers often hearing but not seeing motorcycles.

Plus, he said, “I like the throaty sound on a motorcycle.”

But not everyone is so enamored by the roar of a hog.

Some business owners and residents of Sturgis say the noise is excessive and keeps them up at night. National groups argue that loud bikes violate the “peoples’ right to peace and quiet.” More and more cities and states around the country are passing laws cracking down on motorcycle noise.

“It’s probably the single most challenging issue we face as a riding community,” said Peter terHorst, spokesman for the American Motorcyclists Association.

The association fights against some anti-noise laws it sees as imposing an unreasonable burden on bikers or singling them out over other sources of noise.

But it also “has a longstanding position of opposing excessive motorcycle sound,” terHorst said.

“We believe it’s the greatest threat to the acceptance of motorcycling by people who don’t ride,” he said.


Motorcycles bought new from the store aren’t unusually loud. They typically run around 75 to 80 decibels, or about as loud as a dishwasher.

If an 80-decibel motorcycle rides down the street, someone inside a house with windows closed will hear it as no louder than a typical conversation.

But it is relatively easy to make a motorcycle much louder – so easy that many motorcycle owners do it.

All it takes is swapping out the factory exhaust system, limited in its volume by federal regulations, for a custom exhaust. This can be done to increase the performance of a motorcycle – a different exhaust can lead to more torque and horsepower for the same engine, but it can also be done to get a louder sound.

The loudest “pipes” can turn a 75-decibel motorcycle into a 105-decibel bike. That’s 1,000 times more sound energy and appears about three times as loud to the human ear, said Robert Chanaud, a retired professor of acoustics.

It’s also well over the level that can cause damage to the human ear.

Many people in Sturgis say they’re not big fans of the motorcycle noise, but endure it anyway.

“That’s what it is. The rally is noise,” said Sharie Fischer. “It’s definitely something I accept. If it wasn’t for the rally, there wouldn’t be Sturgis anymore.”

Deborah Quinonez, owner of the Broken Bean coffee shop and cafe on Junction Avenue in Sturgis, said she is usually OK with the noise.

“For the most part, I’m so busy during the day that I don’t really notice it very much,” Quinonez said. “It’s only in the evenings when I’m closed down and it’s quiet in here and I’m ready for bed that it becomes a little frustrating.”

Randy Brennick, funeral director at Kincade Funeral Chapel, had a similar point of view.

“It’s just something you deal with,” Brennick said. “There’s bigger issues involving the rally than noise.”

Sometimes the roar of motorcycles disturbs people paying their respects at his funeral home when someone opens the door, Brennick said. But, overall, he said it isn’t a major annoyance.


Despite all the attention paid to motorcycle noise, it is not a major issue for local law enforcement.

“We don’t get a lot of complaints about excessive noise, and we haven’t for a number of years,” said Jim Bush, the Sturgis police chief.

Most noise complaints he receives during the rally have to do with loud music, not revving motorcycles.

That is not to say it is not loud.

“It is what it is,” Bush said. “Any time you get an average of about a half a million people in and out of here every day, and the big share of them are riding Harley-Davidsons, it’s going to be a constant rumble.”

The city of Sturgis doesn’t have a decibel cap for motorcycles, only a general ordinance against disturbing the peace.

That is a similar situation on a statewide level, where the law prevents “excessive or unusual noise” but doesn’t define it.

Captain Kevin Karley of the South Dakota Highway Patrol’s Rapid City office said enforcement of the law is “up to the determination of the officer,” who has discretion whether to issue a warning or ticket.

Violating South Dakota’s vehicle noise law, 32-15-17, is a $120 fine, Karley said.

The law also requires vehicles to have mufflers in “good working condition.” Some custom exhaust systems for motorcycles are un-muffled, putting their riders in violation of the law.

Karley said the Highway Patrol doesn’t step up enforcement of its vehicle noise law during the rally.

“We enforce it the same year-round,” Karley said. “We don’t change our enforcement tactics just because the Sturgis rally is going on.”

Anti-noise advocates say insufficient enforcement of the law allows loud motorcycles to persist.

“Loud motorcycles are illegal,” said Ted Rueter, director of Noise Free America. “They violate the (federal) 1972 Noise Control Act, which states that it is illegal to remove your muffler or modify your muffler for the purpose of making more noise.”

States and cities, Rueter said, “should enforce the federal law.”

“They could certainly make a lot of money if they had substantial fines for it,” he said.

Many governments, including the state of California and the city of Denver, have passed regulations targeting motorcycle noise. A common tactic is to require motorcycle exhausts to have a label from the Environmental Protection Agency that in theory certifies them as emitting a safe amount of noise.

The American Motorcyclists Association opposes laws regulating exhaust systems, which it views as difficult to enforce and singling out motorcycles. It supports other legislation, like a law recently passed in Maine that allows police officers to cite bikers for excessive noise – but lets motorcyclists evade the ticket by going to a certified testing facility and proving that their bike falls under a noise limit.

More than that, the Motorcyclists Association urges motorcyclists to be responsible riders and choose a motorcycle that’s not excessively loud.

“There are a large number of after-market exhaust companies that offer street-legal exhaust systems,” terHorst said. “The rider themselves, they need to select an exhaust system that’s designed for street use and not competition use.”

Though terHorst said most motorcycle riders are responsible, Rueter disagreed.

“I would say probably more than two-thirds of motorcycles are very noisy,” he said.

A study by the California Highway Patrol of more than 4,000 motorcycles traveling above 35 mph found that 15 percent were louder than 86 decibels.

Motorcyclists themselves are divided on the issue.

Some say they enjoy the sound of motorcycles but try to be respectful.

“It becomes an annoyance,” said James Russell, former president of the Dakota Thunder Motorcycle Club based on Ellsworth Air Force Base. “Once you upset somebody, you’re not having a positive approach.”

Spicer, who believes “the motor deserves a little bit of sound,” concedes that “too loud is annoying.”

“You don’t want to be annoying,” he said. “I have neighbors to deal with, people around me. You don’t want to get the cops mad.”

But other bikers say bikers should be able to be loud if they want to.

“We’re a free country. Being a motorcyclist is all about freedom and doing what we’re allowed to do,” said Roberts, the motorcyclist from Minot. “If people want to spend a little bit of their money to take their regulation pipes off and put on something a little bit louder, that’s their business.”

Even if fewer motorcyclists ride loud bikes, though, no one expects the Sturgis rally to suddenly become quiet.

“You have a large congregation of motorcyclists,” terHorst said. “Even a small percentage of half a million motorcycles is going to be a lot of excessively loud motorcycles.”

Contact David Montgomery at 394-8329 or [email protected]