Oakland has spent $15,000 on mufflers to make their police department’s Harleys safer — and noisier than federal standards. Chronicle photo by Kat Wade
Over in Oakland they like it loud – so loud that all 45 of the Police Department’s Harley-Davidson motorcycles have been equipped with shiny new tailpipes, at a cost of $500 apiece, to rev up their roar.
It seems the cops just didn’t feel safe on toned-down bikes.
“There’s an old motorcycle adage that you are heard before you are seen,” said Deputy Chief Dave Kozicki, explaining the department’s decision to toss the bikes’ muted factory-issued mufflers in favor of the more high-volume pipes.
Kozicki cited an accident three months ago in which an Oakland officer riding a toned-down cycle was struck by a motorist who said he hadn’t heard the officer approaching.
But some City Hall insiders, as well as motorcycle cops elsewhere, said the safety argument is a stretch.
Even the folks at the national Motorcycle Industry Council, which represents all the big bike manufacturers, were unaware of any safety benefits from louder mufflers.
“We encourage all motorcycle riders to keep the original low sound levels that meet the … federal sound limit of 80 decibels,” said industry spokesman Mike Mount. “It would seem counterintuitive that a law enforcement agency would go against federal standards.”
Ironically, it was just a short time back that Oakland police were called upon to crack down on noisy motorists who had modified their auto mufflers to make a whistling screech. The “whistle tip” pipes were eventually outlawed under state law.
Oakland’s cops had a long tradition of riding their Harley-Davidsons with the modified, louder tail pipes, earning them the nickname “Rolling Thunder.” But after an officer complained about a loss of hearing and others around town questioned whether the police force was violating the very noise standards it was supposed to enforce, the department brass ordered a switch to the quieter stock mufflers.
According to Kozicki, the decibel drop sparked a chorus of complaints from other officers, who said they felt less safe.
So last year the department launched a $1,200 study in conjunction with the city’s risk management division to determine whether A) the louder motorcycles contributed to officers’ safety, B) were detrimental to their hearing, and C) complied with noise standards.
Kozicki acknowledged that whatever safety-related findings the study produced were largely anecdotal. Still, after everything was taken into consideration, the department concluded “it was in the best interest of the officers to put more-audible pipes back on,” Kozicki said.
Hence, all 30 of the department’s Harleys were sent down to the central maintenance yard for a muffler makeover, at a cost of about $15,000, according to City Hall insiders. Another 15 newly purchased motorcycles were ordered with the louder pipes, though at no extra charge.
Oakland officials acknowledge that the noisy pipes, when tested, averaged 93 decibels – well above the federal legal noise limit, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.
But city Finance Director Bill Nolan, who oversees the risk management division, isn’t alarmed.
“If they were riding eight straight hours, it would be a problem,” he said. “But they aren’t.”