Are you looking after your hearing?

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Published on 30 April 2019 by Mike Waters

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Filed under categories: Features, Tips and advice

A series of surveys from the General German Automobile Association (ADAC) and hearing protection specialists Auritech has raised alarm bells around the potential for permanent hearing loss while riding. Charlie Bliss explores...

Recent studies have drawn attention to the damage motorcycle users are doing to their hearing and the main takeaway from their research hopefully won’t fall on deaf ears. That is, you should use adequate ear protection while riding or you run the risk of permanent ear damage.

In 2018, the ADAC conducted a study which revealed that permanent hearing damage can be caused after only 15 minutes of riding at 62mph without earplugs. Contrary to what many believe, it’s not the noise generated by your bike’s engine that’s to blame – it’s the wind.

Noise turbulence produced around your head by wind ingress while you are in motion is the primary culprit, and your helmet is not enough to shield against it. Internal padding, vents or additional weather stripping on the helmet to direct flow patterns won’t make much difference because these measures do not significantly reduce the noise in your helmet to a safe level.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a serious issue with no cure. It is problematic to diagnose because sufferers may possess a keen sense for hearing certain frequencies or sounds, but might experience limited or no access at all to others. NIHL and tinnitus can occur if the listener is exposed to sounds above 85 decibels (dB). To put that in perspective, a common household food blender averages about 88dB. 

Another common malady associated with motorcycle riding is Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS), which is caused by constant exposure to excessive noise for any period of time. This leads to a temporary reduction in the acuity of hearing patterns. Essentially, hearing becomes worse than it was prior to initial exposure and continuous TTS exposure will add up over time to permanent damage. The negative health effects of NIHL and TTS are irreversible, and mean you’ll likely need a hearing aid later in life.

When riding at 62mph, 95dB of noise turbulence is generated by the airflow within your helmet. The law requires that employees must wear protection while working if they are exposed to noise over 80dB – the sound made by a chainsaw or pneumatic drill, for example. This hopefully demonstrates how, even at standard speeds, exposure to wind noise can have significant consequences.

Unsurprisingly, the faster you go, the higher the noise level and, consequently, the higher level of risk. Riding at 74mph cranks the turbulence up to 98dB, which can be damaging after only seven minutes of exposure.

The most recent study on this subject was published in October 2018 by Auritech. It found that almost half of the British motorcycling population are currently at serious risk of permanently damaging their hearing because they do not wear adequate protective equipment.

Only 40% of riders said that they always wore protection while riding. Worryingly, approximately 30% admitted to never protecting their ears with earplugs or alternative protective equipment at all. Of the respondents who did not wear earplugs, 17% said they didn’t know they needed to wear appropriate protection, while two-thirds opted not to wear earplugs so that their awareness of sounds around them, including sirens from emergency vehicles and motorcycle intercom systems, was not dulled.

Fortunately, there’s a way to get the best of both worlds in that last choice instead of having to go one way or the other. Hearing healthcare professionals and audiologists recommend that motorcyclists use filtered earplugs to protect themselves against wind ingress. These are designed to provide protection against severe damage caused to your ear drums by noise turbulence while allowing lower frequencies to filter through. This ensures that you are still sensitive to critical sounds such as warning sounds, human speech or even your engine, while remaining protected against the higher frequencies emitted by the wind.

Clearly, it is important to ensure that you can still near sounds necessary for situational awareness, such as horns and sirens. What’s more, wind noise causes fatigue while riding. You have to concentrate more while being exposed to turbulence, which carries with it obvious safety hazards. Protection that reliably suppresses the sound of noise turbulence will improve your ability to focus and therefore the quality of your riding.

An effective set of filtered earplugs should be considered a riding essential, vital to saving your hearing. It might seem like we’re giving you an earful, but it’s time to face the music that you should be wearing protection. So the next time you’re trying to break the sound barrier on your bike, you had better have your earplugs in.

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