San Francisco Bay Area

133 - Hearing Protection

Earplugs

Listen:

Can you hear anything? Odds are you can, no matter how quiet it is where you're reading this. That's because (hopefully) you have good, undamaged hearing, allowing you to hear the soft hums and hushes of everyday life, even to very low sound levels.

Want to destroy it slowly and permanently?

Then ride a motorcycle without ear protection! All riders in California wear helmets, and those who believe in the helmet's efficacy as protection wear full-face helmets. Yet most riders don't wear earplugs.

Hearing damage is incremental and cumulative. That means it gets worse slowly over time—so slow you won't notice it happening until one day, at breakfast, you'll realize you can't hear your spouse talking unless he or she uses a loud, angry voice (this may be a good thing). It can take decades, but ride without ear protection and you will go deaf.

The Decibel (dB) scale is logarithmic—90 dB is 10 times as intense as 80, and so on. Riding a motorcycle at freeway speeds (over 50-60 mph) can hit you with over 100 dB—not enough to cause pain, but plenty to slowly damage hearing. Your helmet can actually intensify the sound of the wind rushing past your ears, so that's not really protection. How do you prevent damage? Ear plugs. Here is what we know about earplugs and the issues surrounding them:

Wax

Grandpa may have done this back when he was in the Navy in The War. You can still buy wax plugs, which you squish into your ears, we guess. We haven't done this, but it may be just right for you.

Disposable Foam-Rubber Plugs

There are available at drug stores, online or at motorcycle shops. There are many, many brands, but they all do the same thing. Some are cheaper than others, and some work better—you have to shop around and spend the $20 or $30 it will take to find your favorite brands.

Foam plugs often have an "NRR" number on the package. This tells you how many Decibels the plugs reduce the ambient noise level. For instance, an NRR of 33 will make 100 dB seem like 67—somewhere between busy street noise outside your window and normal conversational tones.

Earplugs don't work unless you wear them properly. To insert them, roll a plug between your fingertips until it makes a compact pin shape. Next, reach around your head and pull your ear up, straightening your ear canal. Then you can slide the plug in—but not too far! Make sure you can get it out again. Hold it in place gently as it expands into place. You'll know when it's seated.

Custom-molded Earplugs

Some riders have unique ear-canal shapes and need a more custom fit. Go to any motorcycle event and you'll find plenty of businesses ready and waiting to take an impression of your ear canal and make you custom plugs, often made of silicone or hard plastic. It's expensive, but custom wearers report better fit, comfort and noise reduction than foam plugs. Our preferred vendor is Superior Sound Technologies.

Earbuds

An earbud combines the functions of an earplug with an audio speaker. We have found that earbuds can lead to hearing damage, as an audio device speaker can deliver over 100 dB directly into your ear canals. If you use custom earbuds, be aware of this and keep the volume below hearing-damaging levels.

Helmet Speakers

You can mount helmet speakers inside your helmet and wear earplugs—the plugs protect your hearing from the high audio output of the speakers. Our experience with such speakers is that they sound best when the speaker is right up against your ear and directly over the ear opening. An audio system designed for motorcycle use works best—it uses a microphone to detect ambient noise and adjusts the volume automatically, so you can keep your hands on the bars. Avoid riding aggressively by deleting the Ramones, Green Day or 2Pac from your playlists. And leave it at home if you don't have the experience to handle the distraction of listening to audio or taking phone calls while you ride.

Earplugs and the Law

California Vehicle Code sec. 27400 says you can't wear headsets or earplugs in both ears except when they are "personal hearing protectors in the form of earplugs or molds that are specifically designed to attenuate injurious noise levels." That sounds like the motorcycle situation right there to us, and we've never heard of anybody getting cited for wearing noise-blocking earplugs intended to protect hearing (helmet speakers or earbuds are another story). After all, motor officers wear them as well.

The State is concerned you won't be able to hear emergency vehicle sirens, which you can't hear at freeway speeds riding a motorcycle, earplugs or not, anyway. Not to worry, State—high- pitched sounds like sirens, car horns and, terrifyingly, screeching tires are all-too-audible with plugs. In fact, you can hear such notes better through the plugs, if you ask us.

Final Thoughts:

You only have two ears, and you need them both. Protect your hearing!