Why are Harley-Davidson Motorcycles So Loud?

Sarah U. asks: Why are Harley motorcycles legal when they are so loud it hurts your ears?

harley-davidsonAnyone who’s ever witnessed a poker run knows that Harley-Davidson motorcycles are really, really loud. And since not everyone thinks that’s a good thing, in recent years, there have been efforts to stifle them.

Straight off the line today, Harley exhaust systems can emit noise as high as 80 decibels (dBs), give or take depending on the model. For reference, a typical car when idling emits noise at about 35-45 dB and in the high 50s to low 60s decibel levels at freeway speeds. Even something like a 2008 Ford F-450 truck only gets as loud as 51 dB when idling and 68 dB when traveling at 65 mph.

And while you might think 68 dB isn’t that far off 80 dB, it’s important to understand that the decibel system is logarithmic- in this case, an increase in 10 dB means that this sound level is ten times more powerful.  So, for instance, 80 dB would be ten times more sound pressure than 70 dB.  For further reference, when you’re talking with someone in a normal speaking voice, you’re usually talking at about 60 dB and a lawnmower is usually around 90 dB while a typical military jet engine averages about 120 dB.

Needless to say, apart from older models of Harleys that could sometimes reach as high as 90-100 dB stock, even today’s 80 dB is still really loud. This is far in excess of many cities’ noise ordinances, particularly for residential areas, although it complies with EPA regulations for street level noise. So why do they make Harleys so loud?

For starters, it’s difficult to attain the level of quietness one sees in a passenger car in a motorcycle due to little room for bulky mufflers on the bike. That said, loud, powerful sounding engines have become a signature of this particular brand of motorcycle, leading to the real problem- many who buy Harleys are not satisfied with the legally regulated stock noise of the engine and instead choose to swap out the existing exhaust systems for straight pipes that don’t really mute the engine noise at all. This results in sound that can exceed 100 decibels when revved up.

This is extraordinarily loud, and could even do damage to human hearing. At just 94 decibels (dB) only one hour of exposure can damage your hearing, while at 100 dB, a mere 15 minutes of exposure will do the trick.  Needless to say, the Harley aficionados who make these modifications and don’t wear proper hearing protection while riding pay a long-term, ear-ringing price for making their engines sound more powerful.

Given this sort of extreme noise pollution, there has been a backlash against noisy bikes in recent years, with many local communities placing restrictions specifically on motorcycle noise, and others banning them altogether.

One such effort is EPA stamp enforcement. Motorcycles are supposed to display EPA stamps on their chassis and exhaust systems that match each other to ensure the system hasn’t been modified. While previously enforcement has been lax, more recently communities are mandating compliance, including Denver, CO (2007), Boston, MA (2009), Arvada, CO (2009), Portland, ME (2009), Green Bay, WI (2009) and the State of California (2010)

So strong is the outcry that the President and COO of Harley-Davidson, Jim McCaslin, posted a message on the company’s website in 2009 imploring bikers to not modify their bikes to make them louder. While loud, powerful sounding engines on Harleys in the past have been something of a selling point, McCaslin noted the backlash over the noise today is beginning to cause problems. He further implied that unless bikers piped down, regulations and laws would continue to be put in place until Harley-Davidson could no longer sell its loud motorcycles and the bikes already on the road might ultimately be banned completely.

McCaslin also directly addressed the custom of modifying the exhaust to get more power:

Testing has proven that straight pipes do not necessary outperform pipes with lower noise levels. Pick the wrong pipes and you can severely reduce your horsepower and/or your torque. And while you’re doing it, you’ll awaken the sleeping giant of social concern that lives next door to all of us.

Harley-Davidson has also taken steps to eliminate the modifications by no longer shipping racing exhaust systems that can work on street models to dealers.

Beyond the argument over increasing power, enthusiasts in favor of loud exhaust systems often claim that their “loud pipes save lives,” meaning that because they can be heard, drivers of cars and trucks are alerted to their presence and won’t hit them.

While certainly anyone who’s driven a motorcycle around much is well aware of the fact that many larger passenger vehicles simply don’t notice the motorcycles in their blind spots and the like, antagonists note, however, that the majority of fatal crashes involving motorcycles were caused by the motorcycle rider, at least according to a 2007 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In the report, it was noted that 45% of fatal motorcycle crashes are single vehicle (meaning the motorcycle, alone), and that among the remaining 55%, in nearly 75% of the two-vehicle crashes, the motorcyclist was deemed responsible.  That said, the classification of single vehicle crashes that accounts for 45% of all fatal motorcycle crashes does include “run-off-road collisions.”  The debate rages on.

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  • Bathazar Xavier

    egads…this article brought back memories of living in milwaukee (home of harley world headquarters) for several years. milwaukee is a great mid-sized city with great places to dine and drink outside – until the harleys arrive, which would mean that all conversation would come to a halt while one or more was driving past. worst case scenario was when a biker actually wanted to park his hog nearby, which usually meant several minutes of deafening roar as he got his bike in exactly the perfect position along the curb. i’m officially a harley hater now, and proud of it.

    • Tank

      And for every person that has had their Chardonnay sipping interrupted by a an annoying Harley, there’s a little boy looking and listening and thinking YEAH!!!! Awesome!!!!

      • Brandon Post

        ya all be a bunch of bitches did it kill or physically hurt u? whats that no? then either put in ear plug or ignore it! my bike isnt loud or a harley but its the love of the ride the feel of the wind and for sum the sound of the pipes so stfu whiney cunts

    • A.O.

      First of all new stock harleys are not loud at all and the author would agree if they actually knew what they were talking about, its simply not true! I own a Harley and when i purchased it i couldnt even tell when to shift without looking at the tac because the bike was so quiet! NOBODY would complain about how loud a stock harley is unless they are a miserable prick that isnt happy without bitching. That said, I hate how loud harleys often are and more so qhate the way people ride them! How many times are you going to rev up that efi bike for no reason when sitting at idle or slowing down? Why, to keep it running? not needed! Do you still think its awesome to rev. your bike under a bridge? You all make me look as stupid as you do! Act ilke you’ve heard a loud harley before and stop acting like a stupid child! Does anybody remember a little rule about treating people the way you would like to be treated? Well then stfu with your stupid ass rude, un-original, played out and lame reving of your 5 horsepower gaining pipes! You know what cool is? its acting like youve been there before! Its not having anything to prove, Its having class, Its showing respect and being respected! I am always conscous of the volume of my bike and how it affects others, i dont blow by vehicles with their windows down or other bikes, i keep my volume to an absolute minimum when in any residental area or if i think it could startle another motorist. I do this because im a grown man that considers people other than myself and that stopped being entertained with loud to be loud when i was 16! If you are still really blown away everytime you rev your bike you look like a 5 year old and are just an inconsiderate douche, act like a man, youve heard a loud vroom vroom before! You dorks make us look as lame as you and you are going to ruin it for us big boys that learned how to share and be civil when we were 12!

      • Daven Hiskey

        A.O. “First of all new stock harleys are not loud at all and the author would agree if they actually knew what they were talking about” If you’d bothered to read the article, you’d see it said exactly that.

  • A Nonny Mouse

    “This results in sound that can exceed 100 decibels when revved up.”

    This is disingenuous and misleading. Yes, it CAN reach that decibel level when “revved up.” But for 99.9% of a motorcycle’s operating life, it is far below the maximum power band. These bursts of high decibel noise are only a few seconds per operating hour at the most.

    I have a CB1100 (not a Harley-Davidson, by the way) with a single-baffled straight pipe which I made in the shop. It meets state inspection requirements. I can probably hit those noise levels if I’m rapping on it, the front wheel off the ground and going 0-60 in four seconds. You know how often I do that? Not very, because it’s an excellent way to end up dead. And for that full sound pressure to be experienced, you’d have be very, very near the exhaust. I assure you no one is anywhere near me for more than a fraction of a second when I do that, mainly because they can’t keep up — unless they happen to be driving a top-fuel dragster down the road. I’ve got a full-face helmet on, greatly reducing the sound pressure impacting my ears. Anyone near me is in a car, since I’m by definition not doing it on a busy downtown street next to a cafe. Even if I did, sound pressure dissipates with the square of the distanced traveled, (inverse square law). Unless the diners get up and go stand next to the bike when it launches, they’ll hear nothing like 100 db.

    Lawnmowers maintain a very high decibel output the entire time they are in operation. But you aren’t going deaf from your neighbor’s lawnmower — presumably because you aren’t following him around with your head next to the engine while he’s mowing the yard. Likewise, I’m not going deaf from pushing my lawnmower around without hearing protection, as I’ve been doing for over 30 years now. I still enjoy the subtleties of a Mozart concerto in the local music hall just as much as I did all those years in the past.

    I’ve also been riding loud bikes for decades. My hearing consistently tests exactly the same as it has since the day I left the Corps in 1993. (In fact, the only actual damage ever done to my hearing is a minor loss in the 1K range in my right ear. That’s from dropping mortar rounds down a tube a few inches from my head for several years.)

    You don’t like loud motorcycles. We get it. Bully for you. But this whole “IS BAD FOR U HEALTH WE BAN IT NOWWW!” nonsense is just that: hysterical nonsense.

    I don’t like bicycles. In fact, I reserve a special vintage of hatred for the arrogant morons who ride them in commuter traffic. You don’t see me clamoring to ban bicycles because of the traffic obstructions and delays they inevitably create. The world doesn’t revolve around you. Suck it up and deal with it.

    • elPrez

      Kudos on a well written reply, totally agree.

    • TonyDee

      Well put! This is all nonsense and overacting by people that just don’t get it!

    • Max

      Nicely put, but quite inaccurate. Tinnitus can most certainly develop with a sudden loud noise at 100 db. If not permanent, then for a considerable amount of time.
      “…rapping” the engine does *not* meet state requirements, most likely just the idle time. And “not [doing so] very often” is still once more than is allowed by most city ordinances.
      You are right, however; we’re not going deaf by out neighbor’s lawnmower. Then again, the distance-to-decibel ratio is the key — and they are considerably less quiet than a motorcycle with an after market exhaust system.
      And say what you want about bicycles, but no one has ever complained about their noise, and the number of deaths from them is substantially less than that of the 2-wheeled statistic known as the Harley.
      I get it. You just want what you want, and you’ll hide behind the stars and stripes to get it. But freedom is not synonymous with a sense of entitlement. I’m afraid your biased argument is all for naught.

  • Matt

    The fact that the person asking the question, as well as the author of this article, can’t seem to realize that there are other motorcycles, not made by Harley Davidson, that are equally as loud, or louder, lends no credibility to either their question or the reply. Harley Davidson’s are loud if you make them loud. So are Honda Civics. So are stereo systems. So are a number of other things in this world. To generalize that all Harley’s are loud, and are loud all the time, is at the very least, misleading.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Matt: Did you miss this paragraph? “For starters, it’s difficult to attain the level of quietness one sees in a passenger car in a motorcycle due to little room for bulky mufflers on the bike. That said, loud, powerful sounding engines have become a signature of this particular brand of motorcycle, leading to the real problem- many who buy Harleys are not satisfied with the legally regulated stock noise of the engine and instead choose to swap out the existing exhaust systems for straight pipes that don’t really mute the engine noise at all. This results in sound that can exceed 100 decibels when revved up.”

    • Peter

      Not true.

      Harleys are the loudest by far, and everyone knows it.

    • Tom Smith

      Not all Harleys are obnoxiously loud, but most assholes with pointlessly loud motorcycles ride Harleys.

  • dave


    • Bill

      If you can’t spell, then you must be a Harley rider.

    • Tom Smith

      Old people usually have worse hearing, idiot.

  • Chuck

    If more drivers respect motorcycles the need for loud exhaust pipes wouldn’t be necessary. Because car drivers are so distracted I feel I must increase the overall sound of my Harley to get the attention of all the idiots playing with their smart phones. You people in your cars, put down your phone and pay attention to your surroundings and respect the fact that when you sideswipe someone while on your phone you walk away, but when you hit a biker we either die or have to endure many months of therapy before we can even get out of bed. Now I am sure some idiot is going to respond and say “Why ride if it’s so dangerous”? IT’S DANGEROUS BECAUSE IDIOTS IN CARS DON’T PAY ATTENTION. So let’s circle around to the main point. When you hear a loud bike that forces you car drivers to pay attention. If my bike wakes you up at night to $#@%&#$ bad, your cars have killed too many of my friends.

    • Peter

      I have almost been hit walking and bicycling by ” smartphone idiots. ” But I don’t need to carry a ghetto blaster turned up to 11. I mind my surroundings, and I am ok.

      You just sound like a loser Chuck. Get a life please. And get a real motorcycle.

    • Tom Smith

      If it’s so dangerous don’t ride a damn motorcycle. Engine explosions from a Harley are so loud you can’t even tell where they’re coming from. It completely pollutes the area with noise. I’m much better able to tell where a decent, muffled motorcycle or car is than I am a shitty Harley (which I can only tell is “somewhere around here”). For all I know it’s some asshole idling it in his garage out of sight.

      From a motorcycle website:

      “Yeah, there are a few situations—like where you are right next to a
      driver with his window down who is about the to change lanes—where
      full-time noise-makers might help a driver notice you, but all that
      noise directed rearward doesn’t do much in the most common and much more
      dangerous conflict where a car turns in front of you. Maybe it’s the
      fatigue caused by the noise, maybe it’s the attitudes of riders who
      insist on making annoying noise, or perhaps loud bikes annoy enough
      drivers to make them aggressive. Whatever the reason, the research shows
      that bikes with modified exhaust systems crash more frequently than
      those with stock pipes. If you really want to save lives, turn to a loud
      jacket or a bright helmet color, which have been proven to do the job.
      Or install a louder horn. Otherwise, just shut up.”

    • strike freedom

      i ride a road bike, i dont need loud stupid noise. Have blinking lights or lights if you want visibility. The chance of you getting hit is just as well as any car. Stay at home i fyou are scared

  • Complaints that they are too loud make no sense considering that many people just don’t see them and they get hit while on the road. Seems to me that if they are ear deafening loud you’d not be able to hit them cause you’d hear them coming!

    • Tom Smith

      Or you’d hit them intentionally because they are so infuriatingly inconsiderate. If these douchebags wanted to be safe they’d buy a car. The “noise saves lives” mantra is false. I can hear muffled car engines just fine. Harley noise gets so loud it’s hard to even tell where they are. Like being in a room when a bomb goes off: so loud you just go deaf and get disoriented. Recognizable, controlled sound is far more useful.

  • traveler501

    I’ve been riding motorcycles of all types (including fullsize Harleys) for over 40 years. Any motorcycle at all can be muted to reasonable car-like volumes. It is ludicrous to suggest otherwise. It is also ludicrous to suggest that “loud” equals “powerful.” (I had a 1700cc Triumph Storm that was heavier, bigger and faster than any stock Harley at the time, but quiet as a commuter car). I don’t agree that one is safer on a loud bike…in fact I see no reasonable argument at all for loud motorcycles. Harley people like their loud bikes because they have some weird “pirate” delusion…I’m surprised they don’t tie firecrackers to their facial hair and light them ala Blackbeard. As for the safety issue, you need to ride as though anyone may not see you at any time…on the other hand, when you ride up on some old lady and scare her half to death with your noise, she may just as easily panic and turn into you as away from you. Loud bikes are just stupid.

    • Tom Smith

      Yep. Lot’s of collisions are caused by people panicking and as a result pushing on the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal. Want to make someone panic? Startle them with your pointlessly loud motorcycle engine.

  • Bill

    I ride a Kawasaki 900 ninja, so in general I am not a bike hater. But I do hate the average Harley because they tend to attract scum.

    I live in an area where hoons prevail and the police do nothing. All day long Its either noisy Hoons or Harleys. Unfortunately the motorcycles in my area are 99% Harleys and they produce the most annoying sound, as compared to say a 4 cylinder Kawasaki.

    It is also unfortunate that it’s mostly low IQ, small minded morons that are drawn to Harleys because of its bad image. Japanese bikes and Ducati’s are generally known to be faster and more fuel efficient than the equivalent sized Harley, so people who buy Harley’s are doing so for its image.

    But mostly it come down to the fact that people who intentionally produce noise don’t give a dam about anyone but themselves.

    • Jim Crowe

      Well said!

      I live next to a home that wrongfully houses two families who all drive jacked up pickup trucks with loud engines, which they love to idle for twenty minutes or more in the morning. Oh, and they have another moniker of the low IQ class: Pitbulls, which they keep housed in a dog run outside year around. Gas needs to go to $5 a gallon for their sakes.

    • strike freedom

      My theory is that people that make the most noise to attract the most attention are usually the dumbest people. Look at the rice rockets having loud pipes but no speed, the idiot with the loud sound system cruising around the block, the idiot riderwith the ear hurting mufflers, the moron just singing out loud with headphones on public transit… the list goes on and on

  • David Castle

    I have a Harley owner at the end of my street. Even though he’s a few hundred meters away, his bike is ear shattering. It makes every window in the house rattle and terrifies my pets. They are easily the noisiest vehicles on the road. And I never see one ride past and think ‘cool’, I just see a bank manager having a mid-life crisis!

    • Max

      Look up noise ordinances in your city. There is certainly something in there about it. If you can’t find it just email your city’s attorneys and ask where it is specifically; that’s what you pay them for. They’ll tell you which one would cover loud motorcycles. Then contact the police…a lot. Have your neighbors do the same. A few complaints will earn him a warning, several more will bring on fines. We had one guy like this and we just bugged the police so much about it that they finally impounded his cycle because he refused to quiet it down. Just a typical “problem with authority” rock-n-roll mentality. Now he’s driving his Ford Focus to work every day, and the rest of the neighborhood gets to hear the birds chirping in the morning.

  • Trza

    This evening I was riding my bike with my 6 and 8 year olds down a quiet residential street, and we passed a guy just getting on the Harley parked in front of his house. He approaches behind us and as I’m motioning for the kids to pull aside to give him space, he’s throttling his bike just behind us. We pull over, and he trotted it really hard as he’s passing within 7 feet of us. I’m a tolerant person for people to roam the earth as they wish, but the noise created by this biker throttling his bike really felt assaulting and intentional from the moment this guy decided to switch out his muffler. Especially to do that in front of my kids- it was completely unnecessary. Can someone explain the mindset of someone who does something like this? What do you do in a situation like this?

    We live near a freeway, and the number of loud mufflers, whether it’s bikes, cars or trucks, seems to only be increasing with population. Our culture seems to be accepting it, but I gotta say that after my experience tonight, I’m no longer cool with the choices these people make without regard to those around them.

    • Jay F

      Throttling? Trotted it really hard? Trotting is a pace faster than a walk. So he was he passing slowly fast? I don’t get it? Is “throttling” mean revving the engine?
      He was 7 feet and moving away and you felt assaulted? How wide was the lane? Is your desire that he ride in oncoming traffic? Why do you have a 6 year old in the street to begin with?
      What is your mindset?
      Switch out his muffler? It’s installed in the bike or it’s removed permanently? It can’t be switched off and on?
      “Can someone explain the mindset of someone who does something like this” – Like kids with loud music they either seek attention or don’t care if it bothers society.
      “What do you do in a situation like this?” Pull over with your kids onto the sidewalk and let the person go on. Or you could ignore it.

      That’s all I can say based on my interpretation of your comment. It’s kind of hard to figure out what you are actually trying to articulate.

      • strike freedom

        brain cell damaged from too much muffler noise?

        • Jay F

          Yea apparently.

  • Jessie

    There are more and more towns in America that are OUTLAWING motorcycles alltogether! That was said by the CEO of Harley Davidson in his recent post to the website in which he basically begs fool ass harley riders to “pipe down” or face serious consequences. Like, the state of California possibly making cycles illegal! Way to go, AHOLE harley suckers! You done gone and ruined a good thing cuz you are a rude, thoughtless pig. Thanks!

  • Michael

    If safety and visibility was the real reason those bikes are so loud, they’d also be painted in neon or the same colors as fire engines and the riders would be wearing neon helmets and jackets. It’s not about safety, it’s about being an asshole who doesn’t care that the bike you ride sets of car alarms and bothers your neighbors. Grow up and realize you’re not in a world by yourself with your Harley. Be an adult and be considerate of others.

    • Tom Smith

      Completely agree. They’re total turds with a single purpose: to be total inconsiderate assholes. Harleys are Chinese junk anyway. Loud, expensive (to buy, not to build), gas guzzling crap. If they wanted to be safe, they’d buy a car. The mpg is the same or better and Harleys are way overpriced so I don’t buy that it’s to save money. Besides, there are much better motorcycles out there, like the ones built by Honda, which are also quieter (by a lot), so I don’t buy the excuse that the size of the motorcycle limits how much sounding dampening you can install.

      All in all, they’re a bunch of assholes who don’t give a shit about anybody else. Hopefully this variety of idiot will go extinct soon.

    • strike freedom

      Or just have loud horns that they can beep when passing by like an a**

  • citizen10

    Loud motorcycle buffoons get a clue and respect the rights of others, instead of violating the rights of hundreds of people in their homes as they roar by. What total disrespect, ignorance, at best.

  • Peter

    Harley’s blow…they suck…period. Machines for immature men that live in fantasy. Machines for people sold a pretend idea. I laugh every time I see these people in their cowboy disneyland pretend life. Truly, you all really look like a bunch of losers and idiots.

    They are far too loud and extremely disrespectful of other people.

    Riding a loud Harley by my house, or near my campsite, or in front of my restaurant, is no different than some one blasting music too loud, yelling and screaming, or annoying barky dogs.

    Very disrespectful of other people. Period.

    I will never stop working to end Harley’s disrespectful and selfish attitude toward others and the planet.

    And just get real motorcycle…. anyone that rides bikes for real knows Harley’s are a joke… I know tons of hardcore riders that literally laugh their asses off at Harley’s and ride circles around them. Harleys are candy ass crap for loser dipshits.

    I’ll be surfing big waves, climbing mountains, trekking the world, and I will have my eye on you Harley…and you guys are sorrily out of shape, eat terrible, and look like crap…. so… behave… you are being watched and noted.

    • Jay

      Funny they probably think the same thing when they look at people on sports bike in full race gear. It works both ways, I don’t know why bikers have to judge other bikers. Well all ride for the love of bikes.

      • Jay F

        Except race gear is designed with elbow pads, spine protection, shoulder padding, hip protection, and is proven to protect racers sliding on the asphalt at 100+mph.
        The pirate regalia with cutoff sleeves and fingerless gloves on the other hand…

        • Jay

          Race gear is designed for you know….racing, We all know that’s not going to help when you come off at 100ks, like I said I don’t ride a Harley I ride a VTR SP2, I have all the right gear, its still not going to save me if I get hit in the wrong place at the wrong time. Granted I will come off a lot better then a guy riding a Harley in the same situation. Look at the statistics of people killed on motorbikes. According to a report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), riders of “super sports” motorcycles have driver death rates per 10,000 registered vehicles nearly four times higher than those for drivers of other types of motorcycles.

          • Jay F

            So wear cut off gloves and a bandana if you aren’t racing. I personally prefer the best protection I can afford, even if I’m just putting around fire trails on my VStrom.

  • Johnny

    Ask any girl that’s been with a guy that rides a Harley. They will all tell you their penises are embarrassingly small. To the point that they can barely even have sex. So generally most of society has been empathetic to the incredibly loud bikes because we feel sorry for the tiny packaged men that ride. It allows them to get some attention at least up until they drop their pants down.

  • Mac

    Very tired of all the obnoxious ‘Sons of Anarchy’ wannabees and their idiotic idea of “fun”. These people are total jerks, that perfectly typify this modern age of total disregard for others.

  • Jay

    Listen to all of you calling Harley riders scum, have a small penis and so on. You are no better then the people you are having a go at. Before you say another Harley rider, no I don’t ride a Harley I ride a Honda VTR SP2. People ride what they want to ride, you judging them on the bike they ride makes you no better then them. As a fellow rider, I hope everyone who rides stays upright and stays safe. It doesn’t matter what brand of Motorcycle you ride, if you judge every single person on the brand they ride you are an Idiot. What about street boy want to be races that lane split past you like you are standing still. Should we judge every one who rides a spots bike the same way. The level of human stupidity never ceases to amaze me.

  • Jay F

    I just thought it was so you can tell which riders are bar hopping and which ones actually you know, ride.

  • strike freedom

    Safer? I always daydream and wish of these loud hog riders to run into the phone pole or someone to slam into them. Same for the rice rockets with overly loud pipes too… just stupid