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Hog days of summer

Forget 'Born to Be Wild.' All those overaged 'Easy Rider' types need to put the mufflers back on their bikes.

September 17, 2009|John Johnson Jr. | John Johnson Jr. is a Times staff writer.

Summer is ending, and not a moment too soon.

In my seaside Long Beach neighborhood, the warm months used to be a time when residents threw open windows to let in the sound of surf and the fragrance of suntan lotion from the roller-bladers on the bike path. But open windows are no longer an option.

Summer has become the season of the cacophonous roar, a time when phalanxes of motorcycles head for the beach cities, piloted by black-helmeted, big-bellied men who think "Easy Rider" was about them. During the week, they may be accountants or car dealers. On the weekend, they are Captain America and Billy, setting out on their own private spiritual -- and noisy -- journeys.

Visit any coastal community or travel mountain roads on a summer weekend and you will see them: desktop rebels rumbling along in vast, growling herds. Not satisfied with the feel of the wind on their faces, these guys aren't happy unless heads are turning and ears are bleeding. In my building, neighbors have to stop talking with guests when one roars by.

As I researched this topic, I discovered I was not alone in my outrage. Indignation abounds on the Internet -- along with alarming information. One website reported that 45% of motorcycles have been illegally modified to make them louder. The California Air Resources Board puts the number even higher, at about 85%, while a biking industry group says it's closer to 40%. Whatever, it's a huge number of people who have deliberately made their bikes more annoying.

This was a revelation. Motorcycles come from the manufacturer with a muffler and catalytic converter to dampen engine noise and lessen air pollution. Why buyers would remove them is a mystery.

One city tried to do something a few years back. Laguna Beach sent a reserve officer into the field with a noise meter and a mission to rein in outlaw bikers. He did his job so well that bars catering to the motorcycle crowd began to complain. The reserve officer died recently, and no one replaced him. So much for the crackdown.

An aide to my city councilwoman, Suja Lowenthal, told me that his boss has tried to combat the problem. He says she pushed the police to set up checkpoints to catch the noisiest offenders. Great, I told him, so why haven't I ever seen one in my neighborhood? Probably, he said, because the police have their hands full with serious crime.

Haven't Bill Bratton and Rudy Giuliani finally killed the notion that cops should ignore nuisance crimes to free themselves up for the big stuff? In both New York and Los Angeles, a different approach to policing has shown that addressing quality-of-life crimes -- graffiti and noise prominent among them -- is crucial to preventing violent crime. If you ignore the little stuff, good citizens move out. Pretty soon, the neighborhood deteriorates and serious crime moves in.

State Sen. Fran Pavley, whose district includes Santa Monica, has introduced a bill, SB 435, that would give police the authority to inspect pollution control equipment on motorcycles. While presenting itself as an air quality measure, the bill would snare a lot of the loudest bikers because they tend to remove the catalytic converters to up the decibel level.

Pavley's bill might work, if it's ever passed. It seems the illegal motorcycle mob isn't so anti-establishment that they disdain the legislative process. Their lobbyists have been rumbling up and down the halls of Sacramento trying to put the brakes on Pavley's bill, and it looks as if they may succeed.

To her credit, Pavley hasn't given up. While she is concerned about excess noise, she said the health danger from unregulated motorcycles also is serious. "A motorcycle without its catalytic converter is seven to 10 times more polluting," she said.

Motorcycles amount to just 3.8% of the registered vehicles in California, but they produce a disproportionate amount of smog, Pavley said. The problem is growing worse as more and more people switch from cars to motorcycles to cope with the high price of gas and the sclerotic highways in Southern California.

The attitude of the cycling crowd might be summed up by Tony Huerta, director of a Southern California biker club called American Thunder.

"I do not agree with the state involving there (sic) noses where they should not be," Huerta wrote to me in an e-mail. "Leave all of us riders alone."

I'd be happy to, Tony, if you left the rest of us alone. You seem to forget that the highways are not playgrounds for you and your hog-riding friends. Your pack seems to think that the laws apply only to squares, and that carefree rebels can ignore them.

Pavley, still bearing the bruises from her bare-knuckles battle with the motorcycle mugs, is being careful to tread lightly.

"I respect people who are free spirits," she said recently. "But when it affects the health of everyone else, there is a role for government."

To my mind, the guy who wears different-colored socks is a free spirit. The one who purposely tampers with his vehicle to harass fellow human beings is a thug.

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