MOTORCYCLE HEARING PROTECTION
If you’re a serious motorcyclist and have ridden without earplugs for years, then according to experts, you probably are already or heading towards deafness. If you’re new to motorcycling then there’s still hope.
In recent years wearing earplugs has become common practice among riders who want to protect their hearing. It’s not the rumble from your pipes that causes the damage but the wind rushing only centimetres past your ear canals while you travel at speeds of 100km/h or more.
Experts say constant exposure to this high-frequency noise damages the hair follicles in the inner ear which, by the way, don’t grow back. And this damage is compounded every time you ride.
While I’ve been riding since I was a kid and pretty much continuously for 32 years since I got my motorcycle licence, I’ve never worn earplugs.
I tried disposables years ago, but found the foamies muffled one of my most important senses that helped me assess risk: I could no longer adequately hear traffic noise.
Fast forward to last year’s Australian MotoGP and I watched intrigued as a large, hairy bloke had brightly coloured goo syringed into his ear canals. I got talking to the salesman from Earmold and was soon convinced to part with $70 for my own set of custom-moulded silicone earplugs. These are guaranteed to reduce wind noise by up to 40.5dB, but would still allow me to hear lower frequencies such as surrounding traffic and even speech when pulled up at the lights.
On the two-hour ride home I pulled over to make a phone call and didn’t need to remove the plugs to hear them. I could clearly hear the rumble of my Thruxton’s Dominator sports pipes.
After all my years of motorcycling, I was curious about just how much damage I’d done to my hearing. I still wear the same Shoei full-face helmet I bought back in 2002, and while I’m advised its way past its use-by date, it feels as snug as the day I bought it.
Hearing experts say the quality and snugness of your helmet, riding position or a windshield fitted to your bike will not reduce noise caused by wind turbulence. I booked a hearing test and, in the interests of science, I rode to my appointment to ensure I had residue ringing in my ears.
Wind noise while riding at highway speeds can measure upwards of 103dB, which is comparable to a lawn mower and if you fang it around at 120km/h it’s the same as using a chainsaw (106dB). According to the Decibel Exposure Time Guidelines, permanent damage starts after 7.5 minutes at 103dB and less than four minutes at 106dB.
While I’d say my hearing is good, I did expect some hearing loss given the years I’ve been riding. Surprisingly, however, my test returned a perfect score with no hint of hearing damage. So there is hope for the oldies among us. This doesn’t mean I feel I’ve been conned into spending $70, as I no longer ride without hearing protection.
Wearing earplugs will mean I’m less likely to suffer hearing loss later in life, but the other advantage that became immediately apparent after my first ride was that I felt more focused once the sensory assault on my ears from wind howl was gone.
Melbourne-based motorcycle travel accessories specialist and agent for Earmold, Andy White says many studies have been done on the effect noise has on fatigue in work and recreation environments such as motorcycling.
“Earplugs allow you to feel fresher at the end of the day and allow you to better concentrate,” he says.
“Noise is very distracting and riders don’t notice this until they do something about it.”
While the type of earplugs – either custom moulded or disposables – is a personal choice, Andy says the advantage of custom-moulded earplugs is about fit and comfort, especially after a good few hours in the saddle.
“A lot of people come to me and say they have problems keeping disposable plugs in place and this is because they have narrow ear canals. Custom moulded earplugs are also cleaner than disposables, which get pretty grotty with ear wax and dirt, which sicks to the foam,” Andy says. And if you want to get even more serious, moulded earplugs can also be fitted with stereo speakers and cables to plug into your smartphone, GPS and Bluetooth communication unit so you can talk to your pillion or other riders.
While time spent alone inside your helmet and away from life’s chatter is time to be savoured, those can be moments made more perfect without the howl of wind in your ears.
HELMET QUALITY VS EARPLUS
Wind howl happens when riding a motorcycle at highway speeds, regardless of the helmet worn and some helmets can even amplify this noise. However, Opinions among motorcyclists differ on the benefits of wearing earplugs and some say helmet quality and fit is more important.
Trish Rankin, 55, who rides a 2005 Moto Guzzi Breva 750 and often rides on long trips with husband Chris agrees a good helmet that fits snugly goes a long way to reduce wind noise.
“I’ve only just started wearing earplugs since I bought a new helmet, an HJC. My old helmet was an RJays and I had no problems with it. But the HJC has a terrible whistling from wind noise when riding above 100km/h. I think it is the shape of my head and this new helmet doesn’t fit as snugly as the old one. The visor doesn’t seal as well and it even leaks when riding in rain. I use a neck warmer and push this up under the helmet to try and stop some of the noise.
John Fergusson, 58, who also rides a Moto Guzzi, a much modified 1979 Le Mans II, says he used to wear earplugs while riding years ago. “I don’t remember precisely when I stopped, but the reason was simply a change of helmet. I’ve used the BMW Schuberth helmet with the flip front for years. Not only are they far quieter in general than previous helmets but at speed they are aerodynamically better and thus generate much less whistling from the wind rushing past my ears. Or it’s just that my hearing has deteriorated so much that I don’t hear it [the wind noise] anymore,” he says. John admits his hearing is far from good and struggles in crowded places where there is an ambient hum of chatter.
“I’m out of a trade background where hearing protection wasn’t considered until recently so my hearing is damaged through work or it’s just simple age deterioration. I’d say this would be the more likely cause than wind noise from riding motorcycles,” he says.
Dave Hill, 58, who boasts a collection of 12 motorcycles, feels there is no advantage to wearing earplugs while riding.
“When I’m riding, I’m not going to block up one of my senses with earplugs and put myself at risk of not hearing my surroundings,” he says. “The best way to reduce wind noise is to buy a good-quality snug-fitting helmet.”
“I mostly wear a Shoei open-facer, which is deeper on the cheek bone and with this helmet, I’m not aware of any wind howl when I’m riding,” he says.
So it seems wearing earplugs is very much a personal choice and goes hand in hand with the fit of your helmet, how often you ride, the duration and the speed. But wearing earplugs is a small price to pay for reduced rider fatigue – vital to maintaining constant awareness – and avoid hearing loss into your old age.