by Paul Carpenter

The Morning Call

July 31, 2014

Although the 2014 quota for newspaper columns about motorcycles probably has been exceeded already, the angry emailed announcement from Chapel Hill, N.C., was impossible to ignore.

As Musikfest was about to begin, the release from Noise Free America assailed Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez (unfairly, it turned out) for his “warm welcome” to a motorcycle rally at the festival.

The biker rally is billed as “See the Steel, Hear the Thunder,” and the part about thunder is what Noise Free America would just as soon avoid at the music extravaganza, getting underway this weekend in and around what once was one of America’s premier steelmaking operations.

“There will be thousands of acoustically lawless individuals at this rally who think they have the right to illegally remove their mufflers for the purpose of making as much noise as possible,” said the announcement. “Noise that is both unnecessary and illegal should not be tolerated or sanctioned by city officials,” it said, calling Donchez “completely irresponsible.”

Before I get to the nitty-gritty of this issue, two crucial points:

Donchez was on vacation this week and his chief of staff, Justin Porembo, said he never issued any welcome for the motorcycle rally, warm or otherwise. “We had no knowledge of the event,” Porembo said. “There was no welcome from the mayor.”

Second, I talked to Valerie Ledterman of the Harley-Davidson headquarters in Milwaukee, Wis., who is the manager of the Bethlehem biker rally and similar events across the country.

“It’ll probably be around 350 people … about 200 motorcycles,” she said. That many Harleys can make a lot of noise, but it’s not thousands

Otherwise, when it comes to noise issues, I’m with the Noise Free folks, and so is Ledterman. She said Harley-Davidson does not design its motorcycles to belch out the thunderclap exhaust noise often associated with the brand. “We sell only street-legal stuff,” she told me. “We encourage people to be community-minded. … Our dealers don’t sell things that are not street legal. … We have very specific specifications when they [the motorcycles] leave the plant.”

Actually, there are three main manufacturing sites — her home plant in Milwaukee, another in Kansas City, Mo., and Pennsylvania’s pride and joy, the Harley plant in York.

As for the basic issue of noise, let’s start with Chapter 157 of regulations established under the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code. Motorcycle noise, it says, must not exceed 88 decibels at 50 feet. That’s 4 decibels less than the limit for trucks and 4 more than the limit for other motor vehicles.

It’s louder than a typical garbage disposal or freight train, but not as loud as a lawn mower up close. Another comparison is a military jet with afterburners, at 130 decibels, which resulted in the tinnitus (constant ringing in the ears) I still have nearly 50 years after leaving the Air Force.

Problem solved, right? All that’s necessary is to find some thug who modified his motorcycle’s exhaust system to be illegally noisy, and no more thunder to drown out Musikfest music, or to wake us up in the middle of the night. Right?

Wrong. “It’s one of those things that doesn’t come up very often,” said Cpl. Tom Curtis of the Bethlehem state police, when I asked about busting noisy motorcycles.

How many noise meters, I asked, are available for troopers at Bethlehem?

None, said Curtis. (I took the same question to state police headquarters in Harrisburg, but there was no response.)

In North Carolina, Ted Rueter, director of Noise Free America, told me the stock Harley-Davidsons mentioned by Ledterman are not a problem. “When they’re stock, they’re probably 80 [decibels], which is perfectly OK,” he said. But when mufflers are replaced with straight pipes or other modifications, “they can get up to 110, ear-splittingly loud levels.”

I told Rueter what Cpl. Curtis had said about how Pennsylvania enforces its motorcycle noise rules. “No state really does, but some cities do,” he replied, mentioning Denver, Boston and Anaheim, Calif.

Everybody picks on Harley-Davidsons because Harleys are the chief culprits when it comes to unnecessary noise.

I like to make fun of Harleys, saying that when I’m too old to ride a real motorcycle, such as my Yamaha FJR (no noisier than many cars), I’ll get a Harley. I must confess, however, that I like Harleys and have ridden them from time to time. I even like the (unenhanced) potato-potato sound of a Harley twin, but I bet some wimps modify Harleys to make them noisy because they want to convey an image of power — despite owning a bike that cannot go very fast and handles like a shopping cart.

While Noise Free’s bashing of Donchez may have been ill-advised, it’s hard to fault the outfit for its goal of fighting unnecessary noise — including hair-trigger car alarms, barking dogs and “boom car” sound systems. The problem is that the thugs know it’s unlikely they’ll be held accountable, unless they take their obnoxious behavior to places like Denver or Boston.

If Bethlehem wants to protect its big glorious festival from motorcycle noise pollution, maybe officials should consider following the example of those cities.

[email protected] 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter’s commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays

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