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Making Bikers Pipe Down

Armed with a decibel meter, a Laguna Beach police officer works to rid the city's streets of noisy motorcycles. He's a hero to some, an irritation to others.

December 18, 2005|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

As a young Marine in the 1960s, he rode off-road motorcycles in the Saddleback Mountain area with his buddies, he said. He has owned three Harleys, including a Fat Boy and a Sportster.

"Riding a motorcycle is almost a cathartic experience," Wall said. "It's a chance for freedom of expression. There's nothing better than hopping on a motorcycle."

But he said he never for a second considered altering their exhaust systems to make them louder -- or riding a bike without a full-face helmet.

"I was old enough to see 'Easy Rider' in the movie theater, and that whole approach in the '60s was completely against my character and training," Wall said.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 21, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Motorcycle noise -- An article in Sunday's California section about a crackdown on loud motorcycles in Laguna Beach said an increase of 10 decibels is a twofold increase in sound. It is a tenfold increase.

He said loud bikes have been known to irritate motorists into violently lashing out against motorcyclists, so he views the issue as one of public safety. Therefore, a bike he can hear from a block away is a candidate for a traffic stop. "Like a small dog waiting for the owner to come home ... my ears perk up," Wall said.

A spirited confrontation with an affluent biker from Newport Beach prompted the department to buy the high-tech decibel meter that Wall now uses.

Wall had given the biker a citation for having loud pipes. The motorcyclist argued that the officer was making a subjective call and that he had a constitutional right to express himself through his bike, Wall recalled.

A hearing officer sided with the biker. Wall said it came down to a judgment call, and the hearing officer did not feel there was a definitive way of proving that the man's bike was too loud.

Enter the decibel meter -- or as some bikers have called it, according to Wall, his "rectal thermometer." He still catches flak from many bikers.

Wall said at least one wealthy motorcyclist told him he probably "makes six times as much money" as the officer.

"I usually say, 'Well, you probably make more than that.... I just do it for fun,' " Wall said, setting up a punch line. " 'I just love writing tickets.' "


It appeared that Zack Padilla was going to be getting one of those tickets. Wall heard the rumble of his Springer Softail from a block away on Pacific Coast Highway. Padilla was also wearing an allegedly illegal helmet.

"I've never had anybody do a decibel meter on me in the state of Texas or any of the other 20 states I've been through in the last three weeks," Padilla said.

After checking Padilla's driving record and chatting about his trip, Wall gave him back his driver's license and cautioned him that the helmet he had bought at the Oregon border would not protect him in case of a fall.

"People won't find you until the buzzards do," Wall said. Padilla chuckled and nodded.

"You're clear, you've got a good driving record. I appreciate that," Wall said. "Zack, I appreciate your cooperation, and now you have a nice trip."

A few minutes passed, and Padilla hopped onto his motorcycle. Then, with a thundering roar, he rocketed back onto Pacific Coast Highway and headed south.

This time, luck was on his side. Neither Wall nor the decibel meter was in range.

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