Anxiety over an impending visit by a biker group known as the Brotherhood of Old Bikers, or BOOBs, for a breast cancer charity ride last Sunday spurred an online discussion that started with a complaint about unenforced noise rules and a call to protest, but turned to issues endemic to communities doubling as tourist destinations.
Marshall residents Donna Sheehan and Paul Reffell on Friday posted a letter on West Marin Soapbox that began: “We are a Destination, with constant traffic every day and heavy traffic at weekends. That includes motorcycles, and unfortunately, that includes motorcycles, usually Harley-Davidsons, whose exhaust pipes and mufflers have been illegally modified to produce ear-splitting, nerve-fraying, painful noise. Noise just for the sake of noise.”
The activist couple cast blame in part on the public—“which has allowed the noise to increase to illegal levels without protest”—and police officers, “[many of which] are off-duty Harley-riders.” They said the impact on people, pets and wildlife was “unacceptable,” and asked that citizens film the ride, which was scheduled to stop at the Old Western Saloon on its way north to Tomales.
The brotherhood’s website features a looped video of a woman lifting her tank top to reveal a large, bouncy bust, as well as a statement that what unites the brotherhood is a love of babes, among other things beginning with “b,” such as booze and buds. Ms. Sheehan said she contacted them but never heard back, at which point she called the sheriff’s office.
California, along with a handful of other states, regulates noise levels from motorcycles with graduated decibel limits based on the year of manufacture. Pre-1970 bikes have a 92-decibel limit, or slightly quieter than a jackhammer at 50 feet. Later years have stricter limits.
And although any law enforcement agency can enforce that code, none have the ability to measure decibel levels, leaving citations unattractive to agencies that would not be able to provide evidence in court.
And noise just isn’t a top concern, either.
“Obviously the major things we’re looking for are moving violations that cause safety hazards and other crimes where people’s safety is put in jeopardy,” Andrew Barclay, public information officer for California Highway Patrol’s Marin office, said.
Officers, like sheriff’s deputies, are not equipped with devices that can measure decibel levels. (They do carry microphones on their belts, however, to record conversations.) So if an officer were to cite someone, and that person were to take him or her to court, highway patrol would have no evidence to show. “It would be like telling a judge, ‘The car was just going really fast,’” Officer Barclay explained.
Lt. Doug Pittman of the Marin County Sheriffs Office said enforcing the vehicle code is the primary responsibility of the highway patrol. And, he said, although “a citizen can file a disturbing the peace complaint, there has to be a legal foundation before we will support a citizen’s arrest, because we have to be able to scientifically support it in court.”
In response to Ms. Sheehan and Mr. Reffell’s call to action, one online commenter, jeweler David Clarkson, said dealing with noise from motorcycles—which he argued was worse on the Inverness side of Tomales Bay—was a “small price to pay for living in this beautiful area. They get to come here, air [their bikes] out for a few minutes, and then go back to Millbrae, leaving the… peace and quiet, for us.”
Ms. Sheehan and Mr. Reffell also raised the issue of gender, claiming that the “ride is a guy thing. Something to prove about something, so we expect guys, including police, to shrug it off. But it is a violation, willful and bullying.”
But that post sparked pleas for tolerance. Sierra Salin, a Fairfax resident, remarked that “we ALL have our areas of rebellion against the ‘rules,’” and asked what are the “rules of humans anyway, and who makes them?”
When the bikers—around 150, by all counts—did come through on Sunday, reactions were mixed. At the Old Western Saloon, they mostly drank water and Coca-Cola. “They were very nice. It all went very smoothly,” one bartender said.
In Marshall, Ingrid Noyes questioned what the fuss was all about. “There are lots of different ways to enjoy West Marin. It got our attention, but within five minutes they were gone. Having ridden on motorcycles, I know how much fun it is. I have a much bigger problem with the bicyclists,” she said.
According to Ms. Sheehan, “there were definitely some illegal mufflers in the crowd, but there was very little throttle-popping and display.” She attributed this fact to their knowledge of the possibility of a pushback.
Lt. Pittman had spoken with both her and the group’s leader in advance of the event, and later felt “pleased” with the outcome. “Frankly it was very well organized,” he said.
When the BOOBs arrived in Tomales on Sunday afternoon, they stayed four or five hours. And though the numbers fell short of the rumored 1,000, the group still stressed the town.
One resident reported that locals “vanished to parts unknown” as bikers filled “every available space” and “tension filled the air.” A highway patrol officer drove through town without stopping, a fire official hung around for half an hour, and Lt. Pittman showed up for about an hour. But when law enforcement was nowhere in sight, things got somewhat rowdy. Some bikers “gunned it” as they left town, others reportedly “leered” or wagged their butts at passersby, and one intoxicated woman outside the Continental Inn inspired a 911 call.
“The majority of them are really, really nice, but sometimes when people drink a lot they get not very nice,” a business owner said. “The trouble is we’re a very small village and so we’re not equipped for large groups.”