Being a relatively goal-oriented type, I have never been able to sympathize with the urge to ride motorcycles–or, for that matter, to go sky-diving. The sensation of freefall doesn’t appeal to me, and neither does the idea of tooling along a hard road at 60 miles per hour (or faster) without the protection of a heavy metal frame around me.
Still, that’s no reason for me to hate motorcycles. I don’t want to dictate other people’s behavior except as it impinges on my own. I do think that motorcyclists should have a completely separate insurance pool so that their high fatality rate (see Tom Vanderbilt’s fascinating book “Traffic”) should not cost me money. But as long as that applies, and their behavior doesn’t impinge on my life, motorcycles are none of my business.
Ah, there’s the rub.
Most motorcycles in my area do impinge on my life. And it’s because most of them constantly violate the law.
If I drove a car that made as much noise as the average motorcycle does, I’d get a ticket. In fact, it happened to me once, shortly after something flew up from the road and banged my muffler, destroying it. I took the ticket with good grace, explained the situation to the judge, and paid a small fine.
But most motorcycles drive around with their mufflers deliberately bypassed or removed. The cyclists call them “straight pipe,” meaning the exhaust pipe is just that, a pipe that runs straight out of the engine without encountering any obstacles. No motorcycles leave the factory set up like that. They couldn’t be sold legally anywhere in the United States. So the straight pipe cycles are illegally altered by their owners or mechanics, and they ride around making hideous amounts of noise with impunity.
I once asked a local policeman why he never gave a motorcyclist a ticket for riding without a muffler. He couldn’t give me an answer; he really didn’t know why, except that nobody did it.
So here I am on an unexpectedly warm and sunny day in October, sitting on a bench on the main drag in Woodstock, reading poems from a just-purchased book (by the excellent Georganna Millman) to my wife, being forced to stop at least once per poem to let the noise of a motorcycle or a group of them go by.
During the wonderful Maverick Concerts summer season, in a small wooden “music chapel” well off a side road, Beethoven String Quartets are often blotted out by the noise of motorcycles roaring past.
And why do these motorcyclists make their machines noisy, risking their hearing (which they inevitably damage) and the wrath of the people they pass? Because they like the noise.
That policeman who told me he never ticketed noisy motorcyclists said that it would be difficult to prove a motorcycle was noisy without measuring it as it passed on a sound level meter. (The cop who gave me a ticket for a noisy muffler had no such problem.) I suggested to him that simply driving a motorcycle without a muffler was proof enough, but he said it wasn’t. You had to catch the noisy cycle in the act.
OK. Following that line of reasoning, it seems I could take action on my own. Theoretically I could buy me a big shotgun and sit myself down at the intersection of Routes 212 and 375 where most traffic arrives in Woodstock. When I hear a straight pipe motorcycle, I could just blast the hell out of it. If I caught the rider too, well, too bad, just collateral damage. When the cops came to bust me, I’ll could explain to them that they can’t arrest me because they didn’t catch me in the act.
I’ll have to consult my lawyer on this. We’ll see what he says.
(Incidentally, my title is paraphrased from the composer Lou Harrison, who titled a movement in one of his orchestral works “A Hatred of the Filthy Bomb.”)