Most motorcyclists in the UK are unlikely to ever go out for a ride without wearing their protective jacket, trousers, gloves and boots. As the saying goes, most “dress for the slide, not the ride”. But when it comes to hearing protection, not all riders hold ear plugs in the same high regard as the rest of their essential kit. But they should.
Hearing damage is irreversible, but preventable. The British Tinnitus Association state that in the UK, one in eight people suffer from persistent tinnitus (a constant ringing sound in your ears), and motorcyclists are more likely to suffer than those who don’t ride, due to experiencing loud, unfiltered wind noise when riding.
The type of riding you do and the speeds you regularly reach impacts the level of harmful wind noise you’re exposed to. Noise above 85 decibels (dB) can cause damage, and you don’t have to be travelling all that fast to reach that level of harmful noise.
A study by ISVR Consulting at the University of Southampton found that at speeds above 40mph, wind noise can exceed the noise of the motorcycle itself and become damaging to your hearing if you’re not wearing protection. Riders are exposed to anything from around 85dB at 40mph to 106dB at 70mph. At 125mph, noise levels reached 115dB.
If you live in a city and most of your riding is done around town, it’s unlikely that you’ll reach speed in excess of 40mph, but you’d still be on the threshold of the damaging 85dB. Longer commutes, weekend leisure rides and touring will more likely see you reach the 106dB+ noise level, and track day riders will get to 115dB and beyond considering the higher speeds you can reach on a racetrack. So with most types of riding, you’ll be getting a level of wind noise that could temporarily or permanently damage your hearing.
With that in mind, you might be wondering what ear plugs are best suited to your riding needs. Most riders new to wearing hearing protection go straight for the traditional, disposable foam plugs. Foam plugs are effective at cutting out harmful noise and are certainly offer more protection than not wearing anything at all. But there are definitely drawbacks: because they block all noise, you can’t hear important sounds such as sirens. There are also low comfort levels, and being disposable means they’re unkind to your wallet, as well as the environment.
In four decades of riding motorcycles, I’ve gone on a journey of discovery regarding hearing protection.
When I started out, virtually no-one wore I knew wore earplugs while riding and it was only in recent years that I really started to understand the damage to one’s hearing that can be caused by the wind noise generated on a motorcycle.
Research from Auritech shows that riders fall into three broad camps: those who wear hearing protection regularly, those who are unaware of the dangers of riding without hearing protection (that was me!) and those who know about the potential damage of riding without earplugs, but choose not to anyway.
Over the years I’ve heard all kinds of reasons as to why people don’t wear hearing protection, and there are still many myths flying around. Back in the day, I probably believed some of them, and even perpetuated a few as well. As I wrote my last blog for Auritech, I recalled some of the most common objections I heard from bikers when talking about the subject. Here are the five I hear the most, and my usual riposte!
I listen to music instead
Some riders like listen to music while riding. Personally I find it distracting, but each to their own.
However, don’t think that wearing regular ear buds and listening to music through them will protect your hearing. It won’t!
Sure, if the music is cranked up loud enough it might overwhelm the wind noise – but that wind noise, especially the harmful high pitched frequencies will still be there and doing harm to your hearing. And it’ll be joined by even more loud noise from your music…
That said, if you want to listen to music while you ride there are some options for you. Connect some in helmet speakers to your device through Bluetooth and wear filtered ear plugs, like Auritech Biker, and you can enjoy your music with greater clarity, and at less volume, while eliminating the harmful high frequency wind noise.
My helmet is quiet already
There’s some truth in this myth, but even the quietest helmets generate enough decibels to harm your hearing.
There is no doubt that some helmets are louder than others. This comes down to a number of factors, not least the shape of the shell, the visor design, the helmet interior and the shape of the wearer’s head. I have three helmets I use on a regular basis: a classically styled AGV, a Schuberth jet helmet and a touring orientated Shoei.
Of the three, the Shoei is by far and away the quietest (the AGV, even with earplugs is unbearably loud) but wear it long enough at motorway speeds and it leaves me fatigued and risking damage to my hearing.
It doesn’t take a lot to cause permanent hearing damage. 85dB is commonly regarded as the safe limit, more than that and the wearing of hearing protection is recommended. For reference, the air flow around the helmet can generate that kind of decibel level at around 60mph.
Earplugs are unsafe
Wearing solid ear plugs can block out all sound, making the wearer feel isolated and meaning that they can’t hear ambient sounds around them, such as speech and other vehicles. That can be a safety issue and, for some, a reason not to wear earplugs.
Personally, I find that foam earplugs don’t completely block out sounds, but they are very suppressed and muffled. Filtered plugs, such as Auritech Biker, have a tiny ceramic filter built into them, which eliminates that sense of isolation and allows for normal speech, while still cutting out that harmful high frequency wind noise. This overcomes the safety concerns and allows riders to hear other traffic while out on the bike.
I find them uncomfortable
We all have different shaped ears and we don’t all get on with foam earplugs, which are not really designed to be worn under a crash helmet.
Please don’t give up with earplugs, just because you found them uncomfortable in the past. Your hearing is too important, so try alternatives until you find the protectors that work best for you. Premium plugs, like Auritech Biker, are reusable and have a tapered fit designed to fit almost every shape and size of ear. And if all else fails, custom fit plugs are moulded to precisely fit your ears.
It’s too late for me
One thing I hear a lot, and I sympathise with, is the biker who says ‘I wish I knew about them when I was younger. My hearing’s already damaged, so it’s too late now’.
Wrong! It’s never too late to start wearing hearing protection. Hearing loss is caused by the hairs in the cochlea becoming damaged, and while you can’t reverse the damage you can halt further loss taking place by wearing ear plugs.
So while it may be too late to stop the initial damage, it’s never too late to take preventative action. Tinnitus and hearing loss sucks, that’s for sure, but a louder ringing in the ears and total deafness is even worse!