The Moab Sun News publishes letters to the editor and occasional opinion columns from members of the local community. The opinions expressed are not those of the newspaper. Submit an LTE here.
There’s no satisfaction in being right when you’re being ignored. For twenty years, Ride with Respect (RwR) has recommended vehicular sound limits that are effective elsewhere yet locally most haven’t been given a chance. It’s critical for locals to understand these limits and the pitfalls of other remedies, which RwR summarized in the “noise concerns” section of our 2021 Year in Review.
The motorsports industry and enthusiast groups developed stationary-vehicle tests and defensible limits that enable communities to largely eliminate excessive sound from motorcycles and automobiles. They have yet to determine the comparable limit for UTVs, which tend to emit more sound from tires/drivelines/etc. and operate at a higher engine speed when the vehicle is actually moving, but I’m confident that this difference justifies reducing the stationary limit for UTVs from 96 dB to 92 dB (as evaluated by J1287, the test developed for off-highway motorcycles).
Grand County could’ve funded research that might justify an even greater difference, but instead they adopted a 92 dB limit for UTVs, which is fine. The problem is that Grand County also applied this lower limit to automobiles, which subjects the owners of vehicles that are adequately muffled (i.e. not bothering anyone whatsoever) to potential penalties of up to six months in jail.
Further, Grand County tossed the stationary limits for off-highway and on-highway motorcycles altogether in favor of requiring an EPA stamp (which federal law requires of dealers to sell, not owners to operate). It inadvertently targets some of the quietest motorcycles while letting some of the loudest ones go scot-free. To boot, Grand County offered a non-competitive contract to a consultant (which several officials referred to as a particular commissioner’s friend) for training law-enforcement officers. The consultant doesn’t have enforcement expertise with off-highway vehicles (OHVs, which include off-highway motorcycles, ATVs, UTVs, and some 4WD rigs). With such Draconian rules and poor training, it’s no wonder that officers are reluctant to crack down on noise.
Now the county favors prohibiting any muffler modification that would increase noise, which would not only be hard to enforce because such modifications are typically internal and thus invisible, but would also discourage consumers from choosing the quietest vehicles because they often need to be made slightly louder for sufficient power. Inevitably, enforcing sound standards involves making sound measurements, which are reliable when the vehicle is stationary. Probable cause can be established by the sound of moving vehicles among other things.
Grand County is overdue to try enforcing the industry-backed limits for motorcycles and automobiles, and to enforce 92 dB by J1287 for UTVs, or to prove that an even lower limit would be comparable to 96 dB for off-highway motorcycles in actual use. There’s no federal sound standard for UTVs, but Utah code requires all vehicle mufflers to prevent excessive or unusual noise, and the legislature has thus far let Grand County interpret the numerical limit for UTVs.
Granted, the legislature decided to prevent counties from targeting UTV businesses after Grand County passed a second wave of restrictions before getting a handle on its first wave. However, with the support of some UTV advocates, the legislature will indirectly mitigate noise with new laws requiring all OHV operators to take an education course, ATVs (including non-street UTVs) to display a license plate, and vehicle operators who unlawfully travel cross-country to repair any damage via community service. That said, vehicle equipment standards are the purview of states (not municipalities), so the legislature will naturally scrutinize Grand County’s interpretation of “excessive or unusual noise.”
Obviously, Grand County would improve its credibility by joining over a dozen other states in adopting the motorcycle and automobile limits that those industries developed specifically to hold up in court. The county will need such credibility to defend its limit of 92 dB for UTVs because, while there is no federal sound standard for UTV advocates to rely upon, there is a logical comparison to be made with other types of OHV.
Upstream, RwR is urging the UTV industry to make a couple of its most popular models at least a couple of decibels quieter. Despite our critique, the industry has continued to support RwR’s fieldwork and education, which is a good sign. Also, they largely overlap with the snowmobile industry, which voluntarily reduced the sound of their products over a decade ago, apparently recognizing that being good neighbors is good business in the long run.
Unfortunately, the refinement process takes years so, in the meantime, Grand County should finally try the suggestions of its own Motorized Trails Committee (which I currently chair, but am not speaking for here) and of RwR. RwR hadn’t lobbied for the street use of ATVs in the first place, but we recognize that many OHVs are too loud for the trail as well, hence our steadfast support of restrictive-yet-reasonable solutions.
Clif Koontz is the executive director of Ride with Respect, a nonprofit organization that conserves shared-use trails and their surroundings.