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Longing for the sounds of silence

Franklin, N.H.

A pleasant Cambridge greenway along the banks of the Charles River.

Key West, Fla.

Shapleigh, Maine

A sidewalk across from the State House.

What do those five locations have in common?

They're among the places I've been in the last month when a motorcycle has gone by, ripping the relative quiet with a roar so loud that it wasn't just distracting, but, on several occasions, actually conversation drowning.

And so, once again I pose a question I raise every year or so:

Why does everything have to be so loud?

Yes, I know the argument about motorcycles: Loud pipes save lives.

I also know that responsible leaders in the motorcycling community consider that so much, well, hogwash - and urge their fellow bikers not to ride with unbaffled or barely baffled pipes.

Bikers are hardly the only offenders, of course.

Life in the city or the suburbs can be a jarring cacophony of sound, from lawn mowers to leaf blowers to the thump-thump-thump of car stereo systems to endlessly barking dogs.

Time was, the Environmental Protection Agency had an Office of Noise Abatement and Control to lead the national antinoise efforts, but the Reagan administration effectively killed the unit in 1981. That action effectively ended any central role for the federal government in the effort to combat excessive sound.

With a new green revolution gathering steam, it's time to look again at noise control.

''We are trying to reduce pollution, and noise is just one more pollutant,'' says Les Blomberg, director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a Vermont-based group dedicated to reducing the daily din.

''People who are longing for quiet are no different from those who are longing for clean air or clean water.''

Absent a federal role, noise control efforts have been left to the states and cities. They've sometimes stepped in with noise ordinances, but focus and enforcement are often lackadaisical at best.

One notable exception is New York City. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, this July, the Big Apple will inaugurate a new antinoise code that measures excessive noise by the relatively simple standard of whether it is ''plainly audible'' at a specified number of feet.

Thus, for example, car stereos will be in violation if the noise they make is plainly audible at 25 feet or more. Motorcycles, meanwhile, will be in violation if ''the muffler or exhaust generates a sound that is plainly audible to another individual at a distance of 200 feet or more.'' (The new code also cracks down on other kinds of racket, from construction sounds to nightclub noise to barking dogs.)

That ''plainly audible'' standard allows for common-sense enforcement without decibel meters and more complicated tests.

''The objective is to make a more enforceable code,'' notes Charles Sturcken, a lawyer with the city's Bureau of Environmental Compliance.

There's another relatively easy way to combat motorcycle noise, says Blomberg (who is not to be confused with Mayor Bloomberg): Require that all motorcycle mufflers have a manufacturer's stamp stipulating that they comply with the standard the EPA developed before the noise office went out of existence.

''Right now, people buy a motorcycle and it is required that it has an EPA stamp,'' he says. ''But people take those off and put on after-market mufflers that are two to four times as loud.''

Both are ideas Massachusetts should consider.

The Bay State has a specific decibel law targeting excessive motorcycle noise. It also has a broader catch-all statute that applies to all motor vehicles, prohibiting, among other things, the operation of a vehicle with an exhaust system modified in a way that ''will amplify or increase the noise emitted by the exhaust.''

So there are legal tools to address the problem. But it's clear to the ear that those antinoise measures aren't being enforced with any determination. Here's some evidence that speaks to that point.

In 2006, there were a grand total of eight citations written for excessive motorcycle noise under the state's decibel law, according to Registry of Motor Vehicles.

That's eight, in all of Massachusetts.

I've repeatedly tried to determine what enforcement effort the Boston Police Department makes to rein in loud motorcycles, with little luck.

Police spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll stresses that the department has a unit in each police district dedicated to traffic enforcement issues, and that officers wrote some 143,000 traffic citations in 2006.

But here's how many decibel-law violations they wrote: Zero.

Now, it is true that there were 14,702 citations written statewide and 1,948 in Boston in 2006 under the aforementioned law that regulates motor-vehicle mufflers.

However, that statute applies to all motor vehicles and it also regulates such things as excessive horns and unauthorized sirens and spotlights, making it difficult to pinpoint what, if any, part of that enforcement effort was directed at loud motorcycles.

With Democrats now back in control of Congress, they should make restoring noise control to the EPA's purview one of their quality-of-life priorities.

Combating noise pollution is something state and city governments should pursue more aggressively as well.

New York City is showing the way.

Nor should they be dissuaded by the notion that asking noise-makers to limit their acoustic output somehow impinges on their rights.

Actually, they are the ones who are inconveniencing those of us in the (relatively) silent majority, who would like to live our everyday lives in some measure of peace and quiet.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is