ATV Safety Blog

The Sound Issue: Loud ATVs taking away our trails

June 3, 2011

The National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council (NOHVCC) is a large group of ATV activists from all over America. When the organization gathers together in one room for their annual conference, they get asked many questions regarding ATV recreation issues in their neck of the woods. When asked what the number one obstacle is to keeping riding trails open, the overwhelming response is "Sound"

Objectionably loud off-highway motorcycles and ATVs are not only responsible for shutting down some of our favorite riding areas, but they are also an obstacle whenever there’s talk of opening up new trails to motorized recreation.

And it doesn’t have to be that way. ATVs and off-highway motorcycles can run great with quieter mufflers, and unless the ATV industry and the riding public don’t start changing their ways real fast, we will continue to see our ride areas and trails disappear.

Past Sound Campaigns

Over the course of the past fifty years there have been several attempts to educate riders about voluntarily reducing excessive sound levels. In the ‘50s there was the American Motorcyclist Association’s "Muffler Mike" campaign. Then in the ‘70s the MIC spearheaded the “Less Sound Equals More Ground” campaign. By the early ‘90s Dirt Rider Magazine introduced “Project Stealth – Sworn to Silence”. While all three programs had some success at reducing sound, the long-term effects have not solved the problem of excessively loud OHVs on public lands.

Things Were Getting Better

In the '90s the overall sound levels of off-highway vehicles on public lands seemed to be lower than past decades. This was due in part to the education campaigns but was also the result of technology that had been applied to off-highway vehicle design. In the early and mid-'90s water cooling and better muffler technology made even competition two-stroke machines quieter than older equipment. The four-stroke machines of the time were primarily designed for recreational or utility use and were quiet from the factory and not frequently modified.

High-Performance Four-Strokes Now the Rage

The issue of excessive ATV sound has reappeared to a great degree over the past six years because of the development of high-performance four-stroke machines that were either intended for closed course competition or have modified exhausts. While the new generation of machines are far cleaner from an emissions standpoint, in application by consumers they tend to be considerably louder than previous two-stroke technologies.

Sound Limits on Public Lands in California

There have been several positive developments over the course of the past couple years. In 2002 the California legislature nearly unanimously passed a measure that in part limited sound output of OHVs used on public lands in California to 96db when measured at 20" in accordance with the SAE J1287 test procedure. A diverse group including environmental interests, ATV organizations, and the ATV industry supported the bill.

In 2003 the American Motorcyclist Association limited sound to the same 96db limit for all non-closed course events sanctioned by the organization. There are several states currently in the process of passing or considering bills to impose the same 96db limit. The American Motorcyclist Association has also organized a series of "Sound Summit" meetings to discuss the issue of excessive sound not only as it applies to OHVs on public lands but on the nation's streets, roads and highways as well.

While 96db is a reasonable sound limit, the machines causing most of the problems are much louder than 96db. In fact, some bikes equipped with aftermarket exhausts can exceed 102db. For the sake of reference, sound pressure roughly doubles for every three decibels so 102 is roughly four times louder than 96db. Limiting ATV sound emissions to 96db using the SAE J1287 test would have a tremendously positive impact on excessive ATV sound and is technologically obtainable by both the ATV manufacturers and the aftermarket exhaust manufacturers.

ATV Enthusiasts' Attitudes About Sound

Off-highway motorcyclist’s attitudes about sound tend to vary depending on the exposure the individual riders have to peers and groups who have experienced lost opportunities or the threat of lost opportunities as a partial or complete result of excessive sound. In general, ATV recreationists who are involved in organizations that interact with land management agencies have a keener awareness of the social impacts of excessive sound. This group generally seems willing to go to greater lengths to keep their machines quiet.

OHV recreationists who haven’t been involved in land use issues tend to be more readily influenced by the mainstream ATV media or peers and are less aware of the impacts of excessive sound. Unfortunately, until recently the ATV media tended to promote aftermarket exhaust systems primarily on the basis of performance with little discussion of the sound output of individual systems and even less discussion about the social impacts of increased sound. This trend appears to be changing rapidly, at least in the off-highway media.

Riders who compete in off-road racing events tend to be more concerned with performance than the sound levels of aftermarket exhaust systems. While it may at times be appropriate to have loud bikes in a race setting, finding a location for a race that is out of earshot of all other humans is becoming exceedingly difficult. When off-road race events are opposed during the permitting process, excessive noise is almost always one of the key complaints of the opposition.

European Riders Have the Right Idea

American riders in particular seem to equate exhaust systems that emit more sound with more power. While this statement may be somewhat accurate with existing American exhaust technology, it is certainly not universally true. European manufacturers have produced a number of designs capable of producing performance levels equal to or greater than 96db compliant American designs but with sound outputs two or three db lower. And recently, American aftermarket exhaust manufacturers have jumped on board with quiet designs that are on par with the European models.

The trade-off has been in the volume (size) and weight of the muffler. The European mufflers and new American designs tend to be slightly larger and heavier. The challenge for the future is to change the average American’s belief that this extra pound or so will actually make a difference between winning and losing a race, and convincing all riders that lower exhaust sound levels will help them retain their riding opportunities.

Where we want to be

Ultimately, the future will include these elements:

  • All high-performance motorcycles and ATVs from manufacturers meet 96db, and aftermarket exhaust systems that can both meet sound requirements, and improve performance. Many examples of both already exist and are being marketed in the U.S.
  • An ATV public that prefers and use quiet exhaust systems for both recreational and competitive ATV recreation.
  • Sound laws and proper enforcement for those who won’t comply voluntarily.
  • Enforcement personnel with the equipment and training to properly enforce the J1287 test procedure.

How do we get there from here?

Manufacturers have stepped up efforts to make stock bikes and ATVs both high-performance and quiet. Many American aftermarket companies are already producing mufflers that comply with 96db limits. Demand for these mufflers is largely the result of the 96db rule in California and competition rules imposed by the AMA. While these are a very positive step in the right direction, manufacturers should continue development on quieter high-performance exhausts for the future.

Creating a culture in the ATV world that embraces quiet mufflers will take a combined effort from many stakeholders. Some recommendations include:

  • All riders, including the top racers, should be required to meet the existing 99db limit for AMA closed course competition and 96db for non-closed course competition. The old adage "What wins on Sunday sells on Monday" applies to more than NASCAR.
  • Individual states should be encouraged to pass 96db sound laws that are consistent with other states.
  • The ATV media should continue to promote quiet exhaust systems and advocate sound level reductions to 96db.
  • National ATV organizations should advocate state sound limits and national limits for public lands.
  • OHV education programs should promote quiet mufflers.
  • Sound testing procedures should be taught at ATV events and ATV management workshops.