Motorcyclists revved up over Hub noise rule

Petition to court calls ordinance unfair

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / July 8, 2009
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Fuming over a new ordinance in Boston that cracks down on the ear-splitting noise of motorcycles, a group of riders is rallying against the measure, saying it unfairly targets those who are not creating a disturbance.

The ordinance, which went into effect June 21, levies a $300 fine on riders whose exhaust pipes lack the Environmental Protection Agency’s seal of approval. Supporters say the tickets will muffle the often deafening roar of two-wheelers, a staple of summer’s soundtrack.

But a group of opponents, the Massachusetts Riders for Justice Committee, says that the fines are excessive and that exhaust systems can be acceptably quiet without the EPA’s blessing.

The required exhaust labels, they add, are often so hard to find that police may wrongly assume they are not there.

“I don’t think cops are going to get down on their backs and search for an imprint, so they are going to assume there isn’t one,’’ said Paul Cote, a paralegal and Amesbury motorcycle advocate who rides a 2005 Yamaha V Star Classic. “I think this is just another revenue source for the city of Boston and an unfair one.’’

Cote said the motorcycle committee filed a petition Friday in Suffolk Superior Court, seeking an injunction to halt the ordinance. State law already regulates motorcycle noise levels, he added, but first violations carry just a $35 fine.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino signed the measure last month after it was approved by the City Council. Councilor Salvatore LaMattina proposed the crackdown after receiving dozens of noise complaints from residents of Beacon Hill and the North End.

“They drive down Hanover Street, and then when they leave at 1, 1:30 in the morning, they wake up the whole neighborhood,’’ he said. “It’s not right.’’

The stiff penalties, he said, target riders who replace original factory exhaust pipes with straight pipes that are far louder, especially with an open throttle.

“If you abide by EPA rules, you’re fine,’’ he said. “It’s the after-market [exhausts] we’re after. They’re the ones causing the problems.’’

LaMattina said police officials have assured him they will enforce the measure.

Under state law, motorcycles cannot exceed 82 decibels when the speed limit is 45 miles per hour or less and 86 decibels at higher speeds. Vehicles with customized equipment can also fail inspection if they generate more noise than they would have with original equipment.

Opponents say the law casts too wide a net and could penalize riders whose vehicles are well within legal sound limits. The EPA regulation, they said, applies to manufacturers, not consumers.

“They’re attempting to solve their financial crisis on the backs of law-abiding motorcyclists on legally inspected motorcycles,’’ said motorcyclist Bill Gannon.

Cote acknowledged that some riders install custom-made pipes for a sleeker look and a more robust, rumbling sound but said they are a distinct minority.

But groups that fight noise pollution say more than 60 percent of riders use customized pipes designed to pump up the volume, driving those within earshot to distraction and worse.

“It’s framed as a quality-of-life issue, but this is really a public health issue,’’ said Richard Tur, founder of NoiseOFF, based in New York City. “It’s a lot worse than a nuisance.’’

Tur said that Denver recently passed a similar measure that has withstood legal challenge and that the New York City Council is considering such a move. He said the EPA label helps police enforce noise regulations.

“The EPA realized accurate testing is beyond the scope of most law enforcement agencies,’’ he said.

But with minimal local enforcement, a cottage industry of customized systems has grown, he said, and riders replace original systems without hesitation.

John Bowman, a Beacon Hill resident, calls the motorcycles that rumble in and around Beacon Street on some nights “acoustic terrorism.’’ Although he worries how police will enforce the measure, he said, he hopes the stiff fines will act as a deterrent.

“When they rev their engines, it’s loud enough to set off car alarms,’’ he said. ‘

‘Any way to curb that behavior,’’ Bowman said, “is a step in the right direction.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at