I talk a lot about proper motorcycle safety gear on this blog. Boots, gloves, jackets, jeans… But there’s one kind of gear that, until today, has gone unmentioned: earplugs.
When I first started riding, earplugs weren’t on my radar. I vaguely knew that some riders wore them, but I didn’t think I needed them — not even when I upgraded from a scooter to a cafe racer with a chopped-off exhaust.
It wasn’t until I started riding the FZ longer and farther that I first tried wearing them. And, honestly, at first I didn’t see what the big deal was. Sure, the wind was quieter, but so what?
But the next time I got on the highway without them, I understood. All this time, the wind noise had been uncomfortably loud — I just hadn’t realized it.
How Loud Sounds Damage Your Hearing
There’s an obvious benefit to wearing earplugs while blasting 75 MPH down the highway. With earplugs in, it’s quieter and much more comfortable.
But what most riders don’t realize — and what I didn’t realize — is that hearing damage is about long-term exposure, not minute-by-minute noise.
When we talk about hearing damage, the part of your ear most at risk is the tiny hair-like structures (called hair bundles) inside the cochlea. Hair bundles (and the hair cells they are on) translate the movement of your middle ear bones into electrical pulses, which activate your auditory nerve and send the signal to your brain.
Hair bundles are extremely delicate, and if they’re pushed over too hard or too often, they break. If too many hair bundles on a hair cell are damaged, the hair cell will die, and it won’t be replaced.
Dangerous Decibels, a collaborative public health campaign backed by several universities, compares damaged hair cells to grass that gets stepped on too many times:
You can walk across that patch of grass and the grass bends but comes back up straight. But if you walk over the grass over and over again or you drive a truck over the grass, not all the grass will come back up straight, many blades will be broken.”
How much noise can your ears take?
The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) places the threshold for hearing damage at 85 dbA over eight hours. Which means, if you’re exposed to 85 decibels (the sound of a busy city street) for eight hours in one day, you’re at risk for hearing damage.
For every additional 3 dBA you’re exposed to, your acceptable exposure time is cut by half. Permanent hearing damage can occur immediately above 120 decibels — a gunshot is between 140 to 190 decibels.
This begs the question: How much noise are we exposed to while riding? Unfortunately, without measuring the noise in your helmet specifically (aside: wouldn’t it be cool if we could do that with a Sena?), it’s hard to say.
The numbers I see cited online range from 85 to 115 decibels — all of which are above NIOSH’s eight-hour noise threshold for hearing safety. But there are a lot of variables that can effect helmet noise: whether or not you have a windscreen, how fast the wind is blowing, your riding position, your exhaust, the helmet you wear…
I did find one study, though, that helped me put it in perspective. In the study, Malaysian researchers attached noise meters inside the open-faced helmets of 52 undergraduate scooter riders (defined in the study as motorcycles between 100 and 150ccs).
The students rode a 25-mile route created to mimic a typical commute. On average, it took participants forty-five minutes to complete — or an average speed of approximately 35 MPH. Overall, a pretty tame ride. Nothing like the wind noise I face in the Columbia Gorge on my FZ.
Even with these limitations, though, the decibel rating for the students was above 90 dBA — above the NIOSH standard for safe noise levels.
Of course, according to the NIOSH, ninety decibels is harmful to your hearing after about two hours, and these students were only riding for forty-five minutes. But to me, the study was revealing: ninety decibels is quieter than you think.
Which earplugs are best for motorcyclists?
As with any motorcycle gear, the best kind of hearing protection is the kind you’re wearing. In fact, this is the one area of motorcycle gear where — unless you have problems with comfort or fit — the cheapest solution will protect you just fine.
I mostly wear $2 foam earplugs, because they’re easy to keep on hand and work just as well as more expensive earplugs if used correctly.
If you’re concerned about being able to sirens or other traffic noise, you might be interested in a pair of earplugs like Vibes, which are “filters” rather than plugs.
Instead of muffling sound like a traditional foam earplug, which can result in uneven noise reduction across frequencies, filters reduce sound evenly, so what you hear is like the real world, but quieter. For this reason, filter-type earplugs are popular among musicians and concert-goers.
Vibes recently sent me a sample of their earplugs to try, and I found they did indeed preserve “real life” sounds better than conventional foam earplugs. Plus, they have a nice carrying case, which helps me keep track of them and feels a bit fancier than the gas station version 😉
There are lots of inexpensive options for earplugs available, so if you’re having trouble finding ones that fit I recommend trying a few different varieties. If you can’t find any that work for you, there’s always the custom route, but they are much more expensive.
Make some noise about protecting your hearing
Most of the risks we face while riding are “what ifs.” Most of the gear we wear is precautionary, just in case something goes wrong. But hearing damage isn’t a worst-case scenario — it’s an eventuality.
You might not notice it, but it’s there every time you throw your leg over your bike. Fortunately, it’s one of the easiest motorcycling risks to prevent. All you need is $2 and a few seconds before every ride.
So go get some earplugs — put a pair in every jacket, and stash some extras in your backpack for your friends. Your sixty-year-old self will thank you.
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