Extremely close and incredibly loud

Noon traffic lines up on J Street in midtown Sacramento in 2006, including a motorcycle. Some area residents lament the noise emitted from choppers on city streets.
Noon traffic lines up on J Street in midtown Sacramento in 2006, including a motorcycle. Some area residents lament the noise emitted from choppers on city streets. lsterling@sacbee.com

Downtown Sacramento has many attractions – leafy boulevards, nice restaurants, state landmarks.

Here is what the privilege of living among them sounds like:


“Vvvvvvvup-vup-vup-vup-VUP! VUP!”


This is not a usual feature of gentrifying civic centers. Most people know what the trade-offs will be when a city spruces up its downtown. (I’m looking at you, shopping-cart guy outside our loft yelling all night at his voices. Also you, meth-head bicyclist barreling freely down sidewalks.)

But who comes to a nice government town expecting Vin Diesel? Maybe it’s a Central Valley thing, like “American Graffiti,” but truly astonishing numbers of souped-up engines rev around on this city’s pavement. And I’m not just talking 1958 Chevy Impalas. There are 32,351 motorcycles here in the capital of California. In the year since we moved here, it feels like I’ve heard every one.

I’m not alone. I know this from The Bee’s letters.

“I live in a quiet Sacramento neighborhood,” wrote Thomas Urhammer of Sacramento in early October. “Quiet, that is, until my neighbor starts his illegally mufflered Harley-Davidson ... .”

That missive set up a debate that raged for weeks.

“Loud pipes are another safety mechanism for riders,” wrote Citrus Heights’ Rick Hulshoff.

“Motorcycles in Sacramento County often are operated at more than 110 decibels,” weighed in Evan Jones, another Sacramentan. For reference, 80 decibels is apparently the limit, and the American Tinnitus Association defines 110 decibels as “screaming child.”

It’s a relief to know I’m not imagining these screaming engines. (Keep those cards and letters coming, dear hearing-impaired readers.) But it’s troubling that this kind of noise pollution should persist here; California has some of the toughest vehicular noise restrictions in the United States.

Especially for motorcycles: A bike made after 2013 can’t even be parked here without a special label from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency certifying that it meets noise emission standards. Lt. David Ricks, who oversees the California Highway Patrol’s motorcycle safety unit, said CHP issued 312 citations last year statewide for excessive motorcycle noise violations.

But “there are a lot of motorcycles out there,” Ricks said, and a lot of their owners live for the noise of their own modified tailpipes. Shushing them is obviously down on the list of the CHP’s main missions.

Plus, manpower is limited locally, added Sacramento police Sgt. Adam Vassallo. Recessionary budget cuts slashed city traffic enforcement from 15 full-time officers to six splitting their time between traffic and regular patrol duty. This should improve in January, he said, when the department expects to restore some personnel.

To these officers of the law, I say: Thanks. And could you speak up so I can hear you? Some guy in an orange hot rod is gunning his engine down the block.

Meanwhile, hope springs. Apparently Harley-Davidson now has an electric model. Though it’s been rigged for the moment to sound like a jet engine, the technology is there to someday make it silent.

A local dealer tells me a prototype has been making the rounds for months now. If you’re privileged enough to get a test drive, please do me a favor: Steer clear of the many attractions downtown.