An important part of my profession is identifying, assessing, and mitigating risk. When I’m working with businesses to help them develop or improve their safety programs, this is where much of the teaching time is invested as risk seems to be one of the most poorly understood concepts out there.
The reasons for this are many but there seem to be a few recurring issues: we don’t necessarily recognize the risks until it’s too late, we frequently underestimate the level of risk for key hazards, we overestimate the risk for other hazards, and we assume that if we hear a saying enough times, it must be true.
In this series of posts about common safety myths, I intend to talk about what the myth is, where it comes from, and why it is wrong. The first topic isn’t necessarily an occupational issue, but it is a myth that I hear frequently: Loud Pipes Save Lives.
You’ll hear this saying spoken by owners of motorcycles, in particular from people who have specifically modified their bikes to be louder than the factory spec. The reasoning is that if other motor vehicles can hear you coming, they are less likely to run into you. This reasoning is the rationale behind setting your bike up such that it can be heard from blocks away, startling neighbours in their houses who are not the people you’re intending to protect yourself from.
Not only is this myth 100 percent wrong, it actually puts bikers at risk by dramatically increasing their risk of permanent hearing loss (as the link notes, if your vehicle runs louder than 100 decibels, exposures longer than 15 minutes could result in hearing damage).
From a pure physics standpoint, the notion that loud pipes save lives is unlikely. As noted in this article, because a motorcycle’s pipes are directed backward, the sound from those pipes is also directed backward; 77 percent of all bike hazards (ie. other vehicles) are in front of them, but vehicles in front of the bike won’t hear it until it’s either next to or in front of the other vehicle. If you’ve ever been startled by a loud bike coming alongside your car when you didn’t see it approaching from behind you, you know this to be true.
But that’s just the beginning.
The gold standard when it comes to analysis of motorcycle accidents and causes is the Hurt Report, published in 1981 and written by Professor Harry Hurt, along with J.V. Ouellet and D.R. Thom. The five-year study examined the police reports of more than 900 motorcycle crashes and summarized 55 key points with regards to the outcomes of the incidents.
The word “noise” does not appear in any of the 55 points. The word “loud” does not appear, nor does the word “pipes.” In a study of over 900 bike crashes, not a single mention of noise being a factor is noted, not as a cause of incidents or as a preventative measure to prevent them.
What it does point out is this:
7. The failure of motorists to detect and recognize motorcycles in traffic is the predominating cause of motorcycle accidents. The driver of the other vehicle involved in collision with the motorcycle did not see the motorcycle before the collision, or did not see the motorcycle until too late to avoid the collision.
14. Conspicuity of the motorcycle is a critical factor in the multiple vehicle accidents, and accident involvement is significantly reduced by the use of motorcycle headlamps (on in daylight) and the wearing of high visibility yellow, orange or bright red jackets.
18. Conspicuity of the motorcycle is most critical for the frontal surfaces of the motorcycle and rider.
24. The motorcycle riders involved in accidents are essentially without training; 92% were self-taught or learned from family or friends. Motorcycle rider training experience reduces accident involvement and is related to reduced injuries in the event of accidents.
34. Motorcycles equipped with fairings and windshields are underrepresented in accidents, most likely because of the contribution to conspicuity and the association with more experienced and trained riders.
To sum up, if you, as a motorcycle rider, want to maximize your chances of survival, get yourself some driver training and make yourself as visible as possible. I recognize that going to school and wearing colours other than black aren’t the sorts of things “cool” people might do, but education and hi-vis saves lives.
Flannery Safety Consulting provides services in the Lethbridge area and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org