The Great Earplug Debate


Well, I actually don’t know if this is a big topic of debate or not, but I know that the wind noise I am experiencing on my daily commute to work is really bothering me. Funny, I never noticed it as a problem when I rode for over ten years in my 20’s and 30’s. Possibly that was because I had a different helmet, or different (meaning younger) ears, or a government-imposed national maximum speed law of 55 miles per hour. These days, if I don’t ride with the flow of traffic at 70 MPH on the freeway, I risk getting run over.

In doing some research on the subject, I am finding that wind noise is the real enemy (and I thought that all those years of playing in rock bands was the culprit). The science shows that prolonged exposure to high decibel levels can produce profound hearing loss, and wind noise at freeway speeds can produce over 100 dB (decibels) of noise. The OSHA noise standard allows only two hours of noise above 100 dB before experiencing “probable hearing damage.” Wind noise at 65 MPH is right at 100 dB and depending on your helmet, you can easily experience that level.

Wow. Little did I know that I was doing harm to myself by not wearing hearing protection. But what about the law? I’ve always known that in California, it is unlawful to wear two earplugs while driving or riding. Well, I found that thanks to a southern California state senator, the law was changed about eight years ago. This information was taken from an AMA press release:

“California SB 315 has been signed into law. Included in this bill was a provision to allow for use of “foam” style non-custom earplugs by street motorcycle riders. Thanks are due to State Senator Debra Bowen (Democrat, District 28, Redondo Beach) who worked closely with the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) to make this change in the law. The AMA is asking riders to let Senator Bowen know they appreciate her assistance by sending her an email. The new law takes effect January 1, 2004. “Requiring motorcyclists who want to drown out road noise by using ear plugs to buy custom-made plugs is an outdated law that makes absolutely no sense,” said Senator Bowen. “The test ought to be whether a rider using ear plugs can still hear a car’s horn or a siren from an emergency vehicle. If a set of ear plugs can meet that test, then a rider ought to be able to use them, regardless of who makes them or how they’re made. The only people the custom-made requirement helps are, surprise, the people who make custom ear plugs. It doesn’t help riders and it doesn’t help the police, emergency vehicle operators, or other drivers who count on a motorcyclist to be able to hear their horns or sirens. As long as over-the-counter plugs do the job, there’s no reason why ear plugs should have to be custom-made, so junking that requirement is a common sense change that’s long overdue.” The bill was signed on 9/28/03, chaptered on 9/29/03, and will take effect on 1/1/04.”

Well, for me, that puts and debate to bed. From now on, when I am riding on any trip longer than going to the store, I will be wearing hearing protection. My protection of choice are inexpensive ($20) in-ear headphones for my iPhone that I bought at Office Depot. They are quiet enough for me to use the TuneIn Radio App to listen to NPR on my way into the office, but I can still hear the road around me, my bike as it changes through the gears, and any emergency vehicles. I don’t know if in-ear headphones adhere to the letter of the law. I will be checking that and will update this post when I find out. But legalities aside, I’m not listening to loud music, only soft spoken words from National Public Radio, so I’m not complicating the noise issue by inducing my own.

If you want to find out more information about motorcycles and hearing loss, check out these links:
http://www.freehearingtest.com/hia_motorcyclefacts.shtml
http://www.msgroup.org/forums/mtt/topic.asp?topic_id=90
http://www.webbikeworld.com/motorcycle-helmets/helmet-noise.htm
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC539364/

One last thing, if you think hearing protection makes you look wimpy, try these in-ear headphones from Munitio. I guarantee you that any snickers from fellow riders will stop once they see that they are 9MM pistol ammo.

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8 thoughts on “The Great Earplug Debate

  1. Like your blog.

    Connie is a very noisy bike, we have the usual wind noise, but the fairing upper acts like an acoustic reflector and shoots the engine noise straight back at the rider too.

    • It’s all relative, Richard. My brother-in-law put different pipes on his new Bonneville just to make it throaty and louder. Go figure.

  2. Hey Peter,

    Glad to hear you’re back on the road! I commuted from San Francisco to San Jose for a couple years on my Ducati Monster (minimal fairing, lots of wind noise, ~1.5hrs). My earplugs of choice were Super Hear-o’s. They’re cheap foam plugs that are pretty comfortable over the long haul, give you about 30db of protection, and are available at most Walgreens. That being said, I think I’ve suffered my fair share of hearing loss over the years by not being totally diligent with them. For anyone new to bikes, I would highly recommend wearing some kind of hearing protection every time you go on the highway (second only to the helmet, jacket and gloves).

    keep the rubber side down! 🙂
    Nelson

    • I just got the relatively inexpensive ($40) custom molded earplugs in a booth at the San Mateo motorcycle show. They are GREAT! They let in a bit more sound than the Hear-o’s which I like because I feel less disconnected from the bike and road. They still provide plenty of noise reduction. Next year, I’m buying the custom molded earphone models which are about $90. I strongly recommend the custom ones (either cheap or more expensive) because the are comfortable and just the right amount of sound deadening.

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