MILWAUKEE— Robert Miranda’s motorcycle, nicknamed Loki, roars when he revs the engine.
To him, it’s a beautiful sound, part of the city’s motorcycle heritage that began 115 years ago with the founding of Harley-Davidson.
“This is where ‘thunder’ starts in America. … If it’s too loud for you, then it’s because you are not a Milwaukeean,” Miranda said.
But while the roar of a Harley is sweet music to many people who associate the big two-wheelers with rollicking good times, others consider it offensive.
Headed into summer, and Harley-Davidson’s 115th anniversary celebration Labor Day weekend, it’s going to get loud as the sound of bikes echoes off buildings like a canyon wall.
Noise also becomes an issue as Harley seeks to expand its base of riders in an effort to reduce declining sales, blamed in part on aging Boomers who are giving up their bikes for more peaceful pursuits.
A big Harley has a sound rating as high as 80 decibels, similar to a dishwasher or a garbage disposal. But any bike can be much louder if the owner replaces the stock muffler with an exhaust pipe meant to crank out more decibels.
Patty Yunk, who lives at the Knickerbocker Hotel condominiums on Juneau Avenue in Milwaukee, said she’s leaving town for Harley’s anniversary party because the noise will be unbearable.
She says loud bikes have ruined some calm summer evenings at the condos located a couple of blocks from Lake Michigan.
“You end up shutting all of your windows,” Yunk said, but it still doesn’t block the noise. “When the bikes congregate in large groups, and they all take off at once, I think the trees start shaking.”
All Harleys sold in the U.S. are built to comply with federal noise regulations, according to the company that once tried to trademark the “potato-potato-potato” sound of its V-Twin engines.
“We love the sound of our V-Twins, and we know you can enjoy good sound quality and performance without being excessive,” Harley-Davidson said in a statement.
Many motorcyclists are convinced, through their own experience, that a loud bike helps get the attention of a distracted or inattentive driver.
“Loud pipes save lives,” Miranda said, adding that his Electra Glide was too quiet before he changed the muffler.
“When they hear me coming, nobody is going to get in my way, and nobody is going to be surprised that I am there,” he said.
Tom Bamberger, who lives in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood, said he can hear loud bikes coming five blocks from his house.
At times, the noise from bikes and cars with booming stereos has been so bad he couldn’t hear his television.
“It’s literally an invasion into your house,” Bamberger said. Some are loud enough to violate state law, which says you aren’t allowed to modify a vehicle’s exhaust system to make it louder.
But that law is seldom enforced.
“As a practical matter, nobody seems to know what to do about it,” said Alderman Robert Bauman, who represents the downtown Milwaukee area and says he gets complaints about loud bikes. “This council has zero power to tell the police how to conduct their business,” he said.
In Kewaunee County, in northeastern Wisconsin, Sheriff Matt Joski says he’s cracking down on loud bikes.
“I was embarrassed to admit that we have not done enough in our enforcement, and the time has come to bring these violations back into compliance,” Joski said.
The first step, he said, is for deputies to issue written warnings — meaning a violator would have 15 days to correct a bike’s “defective” muffler or face a fine.
“We have put up with this long enough,” Joski said. “If you are that attached to your (loud) exhaust system, please feel free to run it in the seclusion of your own home.”
Audiologists say riding a loud bike can cause permanent hearing damage.
The combination of engine noise and wind is harmful, said Brian Fligor, president of Boston Audiology Consultants and a former assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
A full day spent on a loud bike at highway speed would subject your ears to an “outrageous pounding,” Fligor said, akin to working 18 months in a moderately noisy factory without hearing protection.
It helps to wear a helmet with a face shield, said Melissa Heche, director of the New York Speech and Hearing clinic in New York.
Much of the noise stems from the wind and how fast someone rides, according to Heche.
Wearing earplugs isn’t a good idea because it would block the sound of surrounding traffic, putting the motorcyclist at risk. But “active” ear protection is available that allows necessary sounds in while reducing harmful decibels.
Loud motorcycles are controversial across the nation, especially in cities that have rallies attracting thousands of bikers who spend a lot of money at those events.
Yielding to pressure from businesses and rally-goers, some cities have backed off enforcing noise ordinances, or even posting signs urging bikers to “throttle down” while in town.
Many motorcyclists say they want the choice of being able to crank up the engine sound when they feel like it, and when they’re trying to get the attention of another motorist or an animal alongside the road.
“I like to give our furry friends a heads-up that I am coming,” Miranda said.
But it’s not a license to offend people, said Tony Sanfelipo, a Milwaukee biker.
“I have been riding 52 years, and those guys with really loud pipes annoy me. I don’t like it any more than anybody else does, and I certainly wouldn’t like it if I were sitting on my porch on a Sunday afternoon,” he said.
It comes down to using good judgment, said Ted Palmatier of Burlington, who rides a 2000 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy with a modified muffler.
Palmatier said he’s been riding bikes with loud exhaust pipes for 48 years and has never been pulled over by police for it.
“But I don’t go through somebody’s neighborhood over the speed limit, rapping the pipes just to be a wisenheimer,” he said.