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N.H. measure would force motorcycles to pipe down

By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / March 9, 2012
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The inimitable engine roar of Harleys has become a sound of summer beloved by many, revered as an emblem of the open road and an everyman’s freedom.

But it is also increasingly despised. Critics say quality of life is under assault by motorcycles that blot out sidewalk cafe conversations and interrupt backyard reading. Laws designed to restrain motorcycle sounds have popped up across the nation, Boston included.

Now, the cultural fight has arrived in New Hampshire, a state with one of the historically highest per-capita rates of motorcycle registration and a “live free or die’’ mantra that bikers like to say embodies their easy-riding ethos. Last month, the state House of Representatives approved a bill that lowers allowed motorcycle noise levels to 92 decibels for idling engines and between 96 and 100 for revving engines, as determined by a decibel meter reading taken by a police officer. The current law allows for 106 decibels.

The state Senate is expected to vote on the bill this year; the governor’s press secretary did not respond to an inquiry about whether he would sign the bill.

The bill is being hailed by noise opponents as a step forward, though not as far as they would have liked. The legislation as initially proposed would have lowered noise levels to 80 or 82 decibels and required that all motorcycles have an EPA-approved exhaust system, including a stamp attesting that the bike met noise standards. If the system were swapped out for a louder one that lacked the stamp, the rider could be fined. Motorcycle advocates argued the original bill was unreasonable, prompting the amended version.

“We have made some progress,’’ said Bill Mitchell, founder of NHCALM, a group dedicated to quieting loud bikes. “We’ve dropped the decibels to 92 from 106. That’s significant. But it comes down to enforcement.’’

And that, he said, will be a challenge because many police departments do not own decibel readers. He said that was why he preferred the bill’s original form employing the so-called stamp approach. With that, police officers determine whether a motorcycle is in compliance with noise standards by simply looking for the stamp.

But the stamp approach does not guarantee enforcement, either. Police have issued just three citations under Boston’s 2009 motorcycle noise ordinance, which employs the stamp method, according to the Boston Police Department.

Bob Wyman, past president of the New Hampshire Motorcyclists’ Rights Organization, said his group backed the pending compromise bill because the pushback against loud motorcycles was growing and something had to be done to mollify critics.

“Loud pipes lose rights because you can be annoying if [you] go through a quiet neighborhood,’’ he said, playing on the old refrain “loud pipes save lives,’’ motorcyclists’ common but heavily challenged argument that loud exhaust systems alert motorists to hard-to-see motorcyclists in their vicinity.

“We care about the motorcyclists,’’ he said. “We care about our riding rights. If you are going to have to make a change, this is the best we can have.’’

Candy Alexander, president of the group, said its members will have awareness and education drives to inform motorcyclists about the new law, should it pass. “We are all in this together,’’ she said.

Left unsaid in the policy debate is the class divide that some see between the two sides - with motorcyclists often calling themselves underdogs in a fight with wealthier adversaries from tony towns with winding byways perfect for Sunday afternoon rides.

Indeed, Mitchell resides in New Castle, a seaside town among the wealthiest in New Hampshire; the legislator who sponsored the bill, Michele Peckham, is a Republican from North Hampton, another well-to-do Seacoast community.

Of course, Alexander pointed out, motorcyclists range from construction workers to doctors - with many coming to the sport in recent years as baby boomers have acquired an affection for the often expensive bikes.

Opposition to loud bikes has mounted most fervently in destination spots such as New Hampshire’s Seacoast, said Les Blomberg, director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a nonprofit based in Montpelier.

For years, loud bikes received little pushback, Blomberg said, because their disturbance was fleeting and distributed across a large area, prompting few people to feel so victimized as to demand change - in contrast, say, to someone who chronically endures music blasting from the home of a neighbor in the wee hours.

The attachment to loud motorcycles stems from deeply embedded cultural phenomena of recent decades, said Garret Keizer, author of “The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise.’’

There is a sense for some, he said, that a bike is power in an age when a growing number of people feel powerless. The roar of the engine is an attempt to project power. There also is a “nostalgia for days when people made stuff’’ as the country’s manufacturing base has shifted to China. A roaring motorcycle can serve as a kind of fill-in for the unwieldy, overpowering machines that once were the work domain of many an American.

“You sit astride it and ride and it has all these gears and belches exhaust,’’ he said.

Wyman said it is hard to put a reason to the joy of loud bikes.

“I don’t know,’’ he said, “Why do some people like loud music?’’

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sschweitzer@globe.com.

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