As the saying goes, “dress for the slide, not the ride”, which is why most motorcyclists in the UK are unlikely to ever go out for a ride without wearing their protective jacket, trousers, gloves and boots. But when it comes to hearing protection, not all riders hold earplugs in the same high regard as the rest of their essential kit. As this is Tinnitus Awareness Week, we’re explaining why you really should.
Firstly, what is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is the term used for the sensation of hearing a sound without there being anything creating a noise in reality, and is a form of hearing damage. If you’ve ever experienced a type of ringing, hissing, humming or buzzing inside both or just one of your ears, either permanently or every so often, then it’s likely you have experienced tinnitus.
Damage to your hearing is caused by exposure to loud noise, either a single burst like an explosion, or consistent loud noise over a period of time, like the wind noise while riding a motorcycle. Damage can be immediate, or it can take a long time to be noticeable, and it can be temporary or permanent affecting one or both ears.
Even if you can’t tell that you are damaging your hearing while on your daily commute, weekend blast or track day, you could have trouble hearing in the future. But regardless of how it might affect you, the good news is that it’s preventable. And it’s never too late to stop any existing damage getting worse.
Are motorcyclists at higher risk of developing tinnitus?
Unfortunately, yes. The British Tinnitus Association state that in the UK one in eight people suffer from persistent tinnitus, and motorcyclists are more likely to suffer than those who don’t ride, due to experiencing loud and unfiltered wind, road and engine noise when riding. You’ll often notice it when you get off the bike. In many cases is will be permanent.
Worryingly, research conducted by hearing protection specialists Auritech found that almost half of the British motorcycling population is 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, with around 30% admitting they never protect their ears with earplugs or alternative protective equipment at all. Of the respondents who didn’t 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.
The type of riding you do and the speeds you regularly reach will impact the level of harmful noise you’re exposed to. Noise above 85 decibels (dB) can cause damage, and you don’t have to be travelling all that fast to reach that level of harmful noise.
A study by ISVR Consulting at the University of Southampton found that at speeds above 40mph, wind noise can exceed the noise of the motorcycle itself and become damaging to your hearing if you’re not wearing protection. Riders are exposed to anything from around 85dB at 40mph to 106dB at 70mph. At 125mph, noise levels reach a lofty 115dB. At those speeds, hearing damage can occur after just a few minutes.
If you live in a city and most of your riding is done around town, it’s unlikely that you’ll reach speed in excess of 40mph, but you’d still be on the threshold of the damaging 85dB. Longer commutes, weekend leisure rides and touring will more likely see you reach the 106dB+ noise level, and track day riders will get to 115dB and beyond considering the higher speeds you can reach on a racetrack.
So, with most types of riding, you’ll be getting a level of wind noise that could temporarily or permanently damage your hearing and see you develop tinnitus. And although most people find that they are able to continue their normal day-to-day activities with tinnitus symptoms, the constant ringing and reduced hearing ability can get increasingly frustrating and has even been linked to mental health issues.
How to protect your hearing
There’s plenty of options when it comes to protecting your hearing while out enjoying your motorcycle, suiting different types of riding and to cater for every budget.
Some people swear that their crash helmet dampens out the wind noise, and while it is true that different helmets generate different levels of sound, without additional hearing protection it is extremely unlikely that you’ll be riding at safe levels of exposure.
Disposable foam ear plugs are probably the most commonly used ear plug for motorcycle riders. They’re the cheapest form of protection, offer great noise reduction and you can buy them in large quantities, so you won’t be running out in a hurry. While foam plugs impressively block out all forms of noise, some road riders feel too isolated from their surroundings and find them off putting, but there are alternatives when this is the case. Foam plugs tend to be a big hit with track day riders and racers because of how effective they are at reducing loud noise, and the entry level cost. There’s also the environmental cost to consider, as they are designed for single use and most are not biodegradable. Wax plugs are also an option, although not to everyone’s tastes.
There are a variety of reusable ear plugs that are more technically advanced than the foam plugs, still offer excellent noise reduction, and come in handy carry cases costing around £20. Most reusable plugs at this price point include some form of filter to protect riders from harmful noise, while allowing conversations to be heard and intercom systems to be used, which is great for those longer journeys with mates or touring with a pillion. Look for ones with a filter designed specifically for motorcyclists, like Alpine MotoSafe, Auritech Biker or Pinlock Motorcycle earplugs.
At the top end price point, there’s custom fit ear plugs which are moulded around the exact shape of your ear, offering the perfect fit. Some of the pitfalls of off-the-shelf plugs are that they’re one-size-fits-all, meaning foam or cheaper reusable plugs might not fit right or feel comfortable to you. There’s plenty of custom fit ear plug options out there, so a quick Google search and you’ll find ones that best suit your needs. At around £150, custom fit plugs are more expensive but many users swear by them, especially riders who like to rack up bike miles in a day.
Remember that hearing damage is irreversible, but preventable. So if there’s one addition that you make to your essential riding kit this year, make sure it’s ear plugs!