Say what?

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

It was a beautiful late spring day. I had just crossed the border from California into Arizona, piloting a big, bad cruiser: Yamaha's Road Star Silverado. Riding toward me, a bunch of bikers, all bandanas, dark glasses, leather vests and chaps. Arizona has no helmet law, so I thought I'd give their look a try - the wind in my hair, that is. I lashed my helmet to the sissy bar, popped my earplugs in my pocket, and "headed out on the highway."

In less than mile I had to stop to re-insert my earplugs and grab my helmet. Without them the noise was deafening. Literally. It wasn't the noise from the engine, of course - the Silverado's stock exhaust is closer to mild flatulence than thunder. It was the wind rushing past my ears.

Of particular interest to riders, research on the auditory front reveals that Vancouver's motorcycle cops experience a much higher level of hearing loss than the general population. They typically wear open-ear helmets, and their communications needs preclude the use of earplugs. The link between motorcycle wind noise and hearing loss has been established elsewhere too.

Noise? What noise?

Noise is typically measured as Sound Pressure Level (SPL) in units called decibels, or dB for short. The decibel scale is logarithmic: every 3dB increase represents a doubling of the sound pressure level. Often quoted examples are (in the range we're interested in) a rock concert at 110dB, city traffic at 90dB, and a noisy office at 70dB. The distance from the noise source is also critical. If the noise is twice as far away, the sound pressure level will be one-fourth.

We know that exposure to loud noise of any kind can produce hearing loss; and there are two factors that contribute to the level and permanence of hearing damage. These are how loud the noise is and the length of exposure. For example, the same level of hearing damage occurs from exposure to a noise level of 100dB for 2 hours as from experiencing 105dB for 1 hour.

Hearing loss can occur in two ways: Temporary Threshold Shift, as in the effect that usually pertains after a rock concert, wherein your hearing returns pretty much to normal after a few hours, and permanent hearing damage. However, a TTS lasting too long will also cause permanent damage.

So how injurious to your hearing can it be to ride without ear-way protection?

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lists safe exposure times for various noise levels. Riding with a full-face helmet without earplugs at 65mph generates an SPL at the ear of about 103dB, roughly equivalent to operating a chainsaw. OSHA's safe exposure time for this noise level is around 1 hour. At 100mph, the SPL rises to more than 110dB, safe for less than 15 minutes. The style or brand of helmet seems to make little difference. Windshields can reduce noise, but an open-ear helmet makes no difference at all - and neither does a nifty bandana.

Hush...

Wearing earplugs can reduce your exposure to wind noise significantly; but there are many different types on the market, and a first glance at the variety on offer can be confusing. Basically, though, they fall into three categories: reusable, one-time use, and custom-molded inserts. Which type you prefer to use is largely a matter of personal taste, but in general you should look for the largest NRR (noise reduction rating) number you can get. You should try a number of different types also, to see which best suits your ears and budget. The Earplug Superstore (www.earplugstore.com) sells trial packs of both reusable and disposable foam earplugs, so you can evaluate different kinds for a minimal outlay.

My preferred earplugs are Howard Leight LaserLite disposable foam plugs with a NRR of 32 (33 seems to be the highest attainable in disposable plugs), for both noise reduction and comfort. Reusable plugs I find to be less comfortable, especially for long riding days, and they typically achieve NRR values of only 25-27.

I have found, though, that the LaserLite earplugs can be reused a few times before they lose their sound-reduction properties. A box of 200 pairs of LaserLite plugs costs about $ 20. There are also earplugs available specifically designed for motorcycling, but they seem to be much more expensive than the industrial types without offering any other advantages.

Custom?

I've also tried custom-molded earplugs. For an investment of $ 120 or so, earplugs are molded from a pliable resin to the shape of your ear and ear canal. A wax impression of your ear is required, something that you can do at home or through an audiologist. Custom earplugs can also be fitted with earphone inserts so you can hear your favorite grooves while cutting wind noise.

I know a number of motorcyclists who have gone this route, and most of them are enthusiastic about the results. My own custom experience was less than satisfactory. Although the plugs fit and worked fine without a helmet, as soon as I put my helmet on, the plugs popped out. In spite of modifications made by the audiologist, and getting a second set made, I never could get these plugs to stay in place. Most likely it's the shape of my ears, not the earplugs; but it does show they don't work for everyone.

One more thing: many earplugs can be bought with cords attached. However, I've found that the cords themselves can transmit noise from outside the helmet, just like those string and tin-can "telephones" we made as kids.

The bottom line is you'd be crazy to ride any distance on a motorcycle without earplugs; and if you think earplugs are too expensive or too uncomfortable, try saying that after being fitted for a hearing aid.