As motorcyclists, we’re diligent about
wearing helmets and sturdy apparel to protect the parts of our
bodies that are most likely to get injured in an accident.
However, there’s a part of your body that may be suffering damage
every time you ride, even if you never fall down—your ears. As
riders we are regularly exposed to noise levels that put us at
risk of permanent hearing loss, the same as industrial workers,
heavy-metal musicians, and machine gunners. Since nobody wants to
read lips or wear hearing aids when they get older, we decided
that it’s time to make some noise about hearing protection.
According to the National Institute of
Occupational Safety and Health, noise-induced hearing loss is the
most common permanent and preventable occupational injury in the
world. Hearing loss can occur from a single extremely loud sound
such as an explosion, but more often than not it’s incurred
gradually over time. Just as skin cancer usually grows as a result
of regular exposure to the sun, noise-induced hearing loss is most
commonly the result of repeated and prolonged exposure to elevated
noise levels. The unfortunate reality is that riding a motorcycle
is a noisy endeavor, and the more you do it, the more likely you
are to damage your hearing.
The most widely recognized resource
for recommendations on noise-exposure limits is OSHA (Occupational
Safety and Health Administration). OSHA offers a sliding scale
showing that the louder the noise, the shorter the time your ears
can safely be exposed to it. Noise intensity is measured in
decibels and the decibel scale is logarithmic, so a noise that
registers at 70 decibels (say, a vacuum cleaner) is 10 times
louder than normal conversation, which typically rings in at 60
decibels. Sounds above 120 decibels (an ambulance siren) may be
painful to hear and so would clearly pose a risk to your hearing
health, but OSHA says permanent hearing loss can occur with
sustained exposure (more than eight hours) above 85 decibels, or
roughly the sound of a lawnmower—or the noise level inside your
helmet while riding down the road at 65 mph.
According to an Ulster University,
Ireland, study, “motorcyclists can be exposed to very high levels
of noise and are an important population at risk of developing
noise-induced hearing loss.” When we think of motorcycles as a
source of noise, exhausts systems are the first thing that comes
to mind. But it’s not the shriek of an open muffler on a sportbike or
the thunderclap of straight pipes on a big V-twin that are the
biggest threat, though loud pipes are certainly detrimental to
your hearing (as well as to our image and rights as
As it turns out, wind rushing around
the rider is the biggest source of noise experienced by most
motorcyclists, assaulting your ears with everything from booming
low-frequency vibrations to whistling high-frequency noise. “Below
about 40 miles per hour, machine, exhaust, and road noise
predominates,” says Etymotic Research’s Doctor of Audiology Patty
Johnson. Pick up the pace, however, and wind noise quickly becomes
the main culprit—and a deafeningly loud one at that. Depending on
the style of motorcycle you ride, cruising down the freeway at 80
mph may subject your ears to noise in excess of 110 decibels. That
is equivalent to running a chainsaw at arm’s length and is loud
enough that OSHA warns that without hearing protection you should
limit exposure to 15 minutes or less per day. We don’t know about
you, but we certainly want our rides to last more than 15 minutes!
How do loud noises damage your
hearing? Deep within your ears are tiny hairs that vibrate in
response to sound waves, converting the mechanical energy of sound
into electrical impulses that are carried to the brain via the
auditory nerve. Those tiny hairs are what get hammered when the
volume goes up, and unfortunately once they’re damaged—reducing
your sensitivity to high-frequency sounds—they don’t grow back.
You’re born with about 16,000 to 20,000 of these little
sound-sensing hair cells, but that’s it. Noise-induced hearing
loss is subtle, cumulative, and permanent. It’s also entirely and
“If you’re looking for the maximum
amount of sound reduction in a form that’s comfortable to wear,
foam earplugs are a great choice,” Dr. Johnson says. Disposable
earplugs are available in a variety of styles and materials (and
colors!) and are far and away the cheapest, easiest, and most
effective means of shielding your ears from excess noise. Buy them
at any drug store or hardware store, practice putting them in
properly, and make sure to keep several pairs in your riding
jacket or tank bag.
“Earplugs are uncomfortable… They’re
too hard to put in… The noise doesn’t bother me.” These are all
common excuses expressed by those who don’t want to be bothered
with sticking foam plugs in their ears or more likely have simply
never experienced the serenity that is riding with earplugs. “I
wear a full-face helmet, so I don’t need earplugs,” is another
popular rationalization. Full-face helmets do provide some noise
insulation, but a full-face lid isn’t enough. If you want to
prevent damage to your hearing, earplugs are a must.
Most helmet manufacturers invest a
fair amount of time and money making their helmets as aerodynamic
as possible. Even so, helmets can be quite noisy. While ensconced
in a full-face helmet, the primary source of wind noise is
turbulence around the chin bar and the bottom of the helmet.
Swirling air from your bike’s bodywork or windscreen is a
contributing factor as well, but it’s how your helmet manages
airflow that determines how loud it is. Besides a proper fit and
an aerodynamic shell, features like chin curtains and neck rolls
that seal the bottom of the helmet will go a long way toward
reducing ambient noise.
Reducing ambient noise is a concern
for some riders. If you plug your ears, how will you hear your
bike’s engine or, more importantly, monitor traffic around you?
The truth is earplugs don’t leave you in complete silence; they
simply make the world a bit quieter. Just as putting on a pair of
sunglasses limits the intensity of light entering your eyes,
earplugs simply reduce the volume of sound that reach your ears.
Your engine’s rpm and the sound of passing cars, their horns, and
other noises are still entirely audible. In fact, wearing earplugs
effectively reduces background (wind) noise, enabling you to hear
the important stuff better.
“Earplugs filter out the wind noise
and allow me to concentrate more on the engine,” says Josh Hayes,
four-time AMA Superbike champion. “They also go a long way toward
keeping me calm so I can concentrate on the task at hand.” Hayes
touches on another important benefit of wearing earplugs, namely
improving concentration and reducing the detrimental effects of
elevated noise levels.
Not only does prolonged exposure to
loud noise cause physical harm to your ears, but it’s been shown
to have non-auditory effects including elevated heart rate,
elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, fatigue, and
anxiety. “Excessive sound exposure has the effect of being tiring
on the whole body,” Dr. Johnson says, “and using earplugs can
actually result in less fatigue after a long ride.”
So not only will wearing earplugs keep
your ears safe, but they can help make you a safer, more relaxed,
more concentrated rider.
What if instead of blocking noise, we
could counter the sound’s waveform and literally erase it? That’s
exactly what noise-cancelling headphones do, and that same active
noise-control technology is finally making its way into motorcycle
Sena’s not-yet-released Noise-Control
Helmet incorporates noise-isolating earmuffs and microphones,
speakers, and a processor that analyzes ambient noise and then works
to erase low-frequency sound waves. That means the booming roar of
wind noise would be drastically reduced (studies suggest an
attenuation of up to 40 decibels) while leaving high-frequency
sounds—like sirens and spoken word—largely unaffected.
The Noise-Control Helmet is expected to
be on the market in early 2017. Pricing has not yet been announced.