The Truth About Hearing Damage
“Have you heard about hearing damage?”
“Have I heard about what?”
“Have you heard about HEARING DAMAGE?”
“Have I heard WHAT?”
Ok, so you’ve probably heard about hearing damage among riders, but maybe those gentle words of warning fell on deaf ears. Maybe you think you’re in the clear because you wear a full-face helmet, or because wind noise doesn’t bother you. Or maybe you know that wind noise is damaging, but you never remember to wear your ear plugs, or you don’t want to muffle your music or the road noises around you.
But permanent hearing damage is inevitable for motorcyclists if we don’t take steps to prevent it. When you’re on the bike, you can be exposed to wind noise levels of up to 116 decibels (dB). But the damage caused by noise is compounded as the duration of exposure increases, and hours of exposure to a lower dB level can be as damaging as exposure to a much higher level (like a jet engine or a jackhammer) for a much shorter period of time. Prolonged exposure to high levels of noise not only causes fatigue, but it also causes a state that is known as Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS). TTS is a temporary drop in your hearing level caused by extended exposure to noise, like when sounds are dulled for an hour or so after a long ride or a concert. Repeated incidences of TTS will result in permanent hearing damage.
While full-face helmets obviously provide the best protection from wind noise, they still produce wind noise in excess of 100 dB at highway speeds. OSHA noise standards indicate there is a high probability of hearing loss after just fifteen minutes of exposure to 115 dB. Currently, OSHA’s allowable exposure times are halved at every five dB increase, starting at 90 dB. For example, 95 dB is safe for no more than 4 hours, 100 dB is safe for two hours, 105 for 1 hour, and so on. Keep in mind, when you’re riding at 70 mph, studies have shown that no matter what brand and what kind of helmet you’re wearing, you’re likely exposing yourself to at least 100 db of noise.
In light of this information, we’d like to remind you gently to WEAR EARPLUGS! The foam kind work well and are convenient and cheap. Carry a small container in your jacket pocket and stash some under your seat because once you start riding with earplugs, you’ll hate going without. Custom-made earplugs are more effective and you should consider upgrading when you have the opportunity. If you like to listen to music, headset systems like those made by Sena and Scala amplify music to levels that are loud enough to listen with earplugs on.
Maybe you’re just getting started in riding, or maybe you’ve just started noticing that some of your riding friends don’t have the sharp ears of their younger selves anymore. Either way, take action now to prevent hearing damage, because nobody wants to be one of those “Have I heard WHAT?” guys.
Interested in further reading?
Rider Magazine’s excellent article “Hearing Protection for Motorcyclists” talks more about helmet wind noise tests and describes in detail the different kinds of custom earplugs. Click here to read it.
Industrial Paramedical Services, Inc has a very informative webpage on motorcyclist hearing loss that was the source of much of the data we used in our own article. Click here to learn more.