Sounding the alarm on bikers’ hearing loss

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Published on 9 January 2019 by Matt Colley

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Filed under Category: The world of motorcycling

New research by the General German Automobile Association (ADAC) and hearing protection specialists Auritech have raised alarm bells around the potential for permanent hearing loss while riding. Charlie Bliss reports

Recent warnings about the damage motorcycle users are doing to their hearing hopefully won’t fall on deaf ears. That is, use adequate ear protection while riding or you run the risk of permanent hearing damage or even outright loss.

In 2018, the ADAC conducted a study in Germany 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 gnarly noise generated by your bike that’s to blame – it’s the wind. Noise turbulence produced around your head by the wind 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, as these measures do not significantly reduce the noise in your helmet to a safe level.

DAMAGE DONE
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a serious issue with no cure. It is problematic to diagnose because sufferers may still possess a keen sense for hearing certain frequencies or sounds but might experience limited or even no access at all to other sounds. NIHL and tinnitus can occur if the listener is exposed to sounds above 85dB - about as much noise as a chainsaw or pneumatic drill.

Another common problem associated with motorcycle riding is Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS), which is caused by constant exposure to excessive noise for any period of time. At first, this leads to a temporary reduction in the perception of hearing patterns – essentially, your hearing becomes worse than it was prior to initial exposure. Continuous TTS exposure will cause permanent damage. The negative health effects of NIHL and TTS are irreversible, and this means 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. As a standard of comparison, EU law says that employees must wear protection while working if they are exposed to noise over 80dB. This 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.

IN ONE EAR, OUT THE OTHER
The most recent study on this subject was published in October 2018 by Auritech. The research found that almost half of the British motorcycling population is currently at serious risk of permanently damaging their hearing because they do not wear adequate protective equipment while on their bike.

Only 40% of riders said that they always wore hearing 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 deliberately 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.

Now, some riders claim that they just don’t enjoy riding with moulded bits of foam plugged in their inner ear. Not only because it can be irritating and uncomfortable, but because it leaves them feeling isolated – as if they are in a bubble and numb to the rich sensory experiences that cruising on a bike is all about. Your afternoon ride-out without the roar of the engine, the sound of the radio from the windows of passing cars, the beeping horns in traffic… it wouldn’t be the same, they say. Indeed, an Auritech survey found that 27% of motorcycle users do not wear hearing protection because they like to hear sound all around them. Motorcycling is satisfying specifically because of these simple sensory pleasures, so earplugs will leave you feeling anaesthetised – won’t they?

That need not necessarily be so. Hearing healthcare professionals and audiologists recommend that motorcyclists use filtered earplugs to protect themselves from the sound of the wind. These are designed to provide protection against the severe damage caused to your eardrums by noise while allowing lower frequencies to filter through. This ensures that you are still sensitive to critical sounds such as sirens, human speech or even your engine while remaining protected against the higher frequencies emitted by the wind. What is disturbing is that 70% of respondents to the survey had never heard of filtered hearing protection.

THE BOTTOM LINE
Clearly, it is important to ensure that you can the sounds which are necessary for proper 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 and that carries obvious safety hazards with it. 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 that are vital to saving your hearing. It might seem like we’re giving you an earful, but it’s time to face the music when it comes to wearing hearing protection. So the next time you’re trying to break the sound barrier on your bike, you had better have your earplugs in!

Have you been affected by hearing loss because of noise while riding? Tell us about your experiences on our Facebook page.