November 13, 2013 - San Diego, CA
The Silent Killer: Wind Noise & Hearing Loss
There are a lot of opinions between riders about whether or not wearing hearing protection while riding is a good idea. We’ve noticed that, like so many other elements of this sport, the use of earplugs tends to be a controversial topic. Users swear by them, but many riders refuse, wanting to be as connected their bike and traffic conditions as possible for their safety. In many cases, however, riders on both sides of the debate are under-informed.
So to clear up some confusion, and make sure you have the right information to make your decision, we’ve put together a few myths and facts about using hearing protection while riding. Most importantly, we focus on the often unnoticed, silent killer of hearing while operating a motorcycle, and it’s not your exhaust or traffic; its ambient wind noise, which occurs at levels of well over 100dB at highway speeds! Find out how it can destroy your hearing, and what to do about it, by reading on.
Common Myths about Hearing Protection
Myth: You can’t hear traffic hazards, sirens, your bike, or other important sounds while wearing ear plugs.
Wearing ear plugs does block sound, but the way it actually affects your hearing is counter-intuitive.
The real killer of hearing, and what we are trying to prevent while riding, is wind noise; a continuous, high-frequency sound. What we want to hear are low-frequency sounds, things like cars around us, engine RPM, and approaching sirens.
Because wind noise beats on your ears non-stop, it creates a condition called temporary threshold shift, or temporary hearing loss from continuous over-exposure (we’ve all experienced this at a concert, races, operating machinery, etc.) In other words, you go partially deaf after an extended period of riding.
That temporary deafness is even more dangerous to your safety on the road than wearing ear plugs, because it affects all frequencies of hearing. Proper hearing protection prevents that from happening, and cuts high-frequency wind noise while still allowing important low-frequency sounds to be heard.
Myth: You only need to wear ear plugs if you have a loud bike.
Again, the biggest danger to your hearing is wind noise, and it piles up a lot faster than you think. Whether you ride a thunderous V-twin or a stock 250, the sound of your bike is miniscule when compared to the volume of wind noise, which is usually around the 100-110dB range at highway speeds. It is a constant, high-frequency sound; the type that is the biggest threat to your hearing, as you tend to not notice it beating your eardrums to death.
Myth: You don’t need to wear earplugs if you wear a full-face helmet.
Wearing a full-face helmet cuts exposure, but to degree that is not significant with respect to hearing damage. Different studies show a reduction in the range of 5-10dB when wearing a full-face, but at 100dB-plus levels found at normal highway speeds, this is still well within the territory of permanent hearing damage. Some helmets flow air so well, the wind noise can actually be almost equal to that of not using a helmet at all.
Myth: My windshield/fairings cut wind noise enough.
Much like the difference between full-face and half-helmets, there is a reduction in sound level, but not to a significant degree. Depending on the style of windshield or fairings, and the height of the rider and his body position, the resulting turbulence may mean there is no reduction in noise at all.
Facts You Should Know about Hearing Protection
Fact: Normal highway riding does irreparable, but imperceptible, hearing damage.
According to OSHA, up to 85-90dB of exposure for 8 hours a day is within hearing safety limits; however, when sound levels exceed 100dB, safe exposure time drops to only 2 hours, and at 115dB, is reduced to only 15 minutes!
What does that mean to us riders? 85-90dB is the level of noise you’re exposed to in normal to heavy traffic, at speeds of under 40mph. Think city driving; car horns, big rigs, sirens and loud vehicles can strain your ears, but not to the level of permanent hearing damage.
However, at speeds of 65mph or more, wind noise creeps up past the 90db mark, and increases dramatically with speed. In other words, more damage is being done to your ears cruising on an empty highway at the speed limit than in the middle of a crowded city!
Fact: Some riders can hear better when wearing hearing protection.
This is completely counter-intuitive, but true. Recalling the TTS, or the temporary reduction in hearing that occurs from sustained exposure, we know that a rider that does not wear ear plugs will have worse hearing while on the road (whether he realizes it or not.)
On the other hand, by reducing that high-frequency wind noise, ear plug wearers are preventing TTS and retaining full hearing ability, still being able to clearly hear low-frequency sounds like approaching cars, sirens, and their engines. As a result, many users actually report feeling more in tune with the road, and especially their bikes, when wearing proper ear plugs, because they are less fatigued or distracted by the roaring wind noise that they probably didn’t even notice before.
The important factor is choosing ear plugs that attenuate enough to take the edge off of high frequency wind noise, while still allowing important sounds to be heard. This is accomplished at 15-30db attenuation, the range most “foamie” style earplugs fall into.
Fact: Wearing hearing protection makes you less tired after a ride.
Many ear plug wearers report lower fatigue after riding versus when riding without them. This is due to the reduction in “noise fatigue," a condition of exhaustion and even pain that can result from sustained exposure to high levels of noise (a commonly known condition in the aviation industry, and other industries where loud noise is constant.) In other words, you may literally feel more energetic during and after a ride with ear plugs in, which is especially important if you’re a motorcycle commuter. It can’t hurt your riding ability either.
How To Keep Your Hearing
While there are many routes you can take when choosing ear protection, from bulk packs of cheap disposables to custom fit plugs made by a doctor, we recommend trying these ear filters (plugs) from Hearos. They come in multi-packs with attentuation levels from 26-33dB, and at only $4.99-5.99 a pack, they are the perfect way to inexpensively try out hearing protection on your next ride. Try adding a set to your next purchase!
Hearos Xtreme Protection Series Ear Filters (33dB attentuation)
Hearos Superhearos Ear Filters (32db attentuation)
Hearos Rock 'n' Roll Hearos Noise Filter (26dB attenuation, reusable)
The Bottom Line
There is a lot of both anecdotal evidence and hard science that says there is a whole list of dangers associated with riding without hearing protection, and no net benefit. If you’re not wearing ear plugs when you ride, give some re-useable foamies from Hearos a try along with your next order. Even if you’re a skeptic, spending $5 to find out if they work for you is a cheap experiment. Compared to how much you value your lifelong ability to hear, earplugs are a pretty tiny investment.
While this debate will rage on in motorcycle forums and riding clubs everywhere, we hope we’ve given you enough information to at least try riding with hearing protection. After all, nobody wants to be that rider in his older years, saying “if I had only known then what I know now.” Besides, if you think reducing your ability to hear “the road” is unsafe; consider how dangerous actually being deaf is!