As a safety-conscious motorcycle rider, you work hard to protect yourself against a range of risks each time you ride. But not all threats are as obvious as punctured tires and rain-slicked roads. Hearing damage, for example, is easy to overlook until it’s too late.
If hearing loss is low on your hazard awareness radar as a rider, you’re not alone. But there’s no time like the present to start taking a more active role in protecting your hearing.
Symptoms of hearing loss
Hearing is relatively subjective—after all, our minds are pretty effective at helping us overcome and even ignore mild hearing loss. Most people who face hearing loss experience a gradual decline over years or decades. Here are some symptoms that typically indicate moderate to severe hearing loss:
- You can hear what people are saying but struggle to understand them
- You frequently ask people to repeat themselves
- You struggle to follow a conversation if multiple people speak at the same time
- You find listening difficult in noisy environments and large gatherings
- You have trouble hearing higher-frequency sounds, such as children’s voices
- You often turn TV or music on louder than others are comfortable listening to
- You experience a consistent ringing or buzzing in your ears in quiet places
How to check your hearing
Self-testing can give you a general idea of your hearing, but for a more accurate measurement, visit an audiologist. Precise testing requires a completely soundproof room and special sound-generating and measuring devices.
How sound is measured
Sound levels are indicated with a unit of measurement called a decibel (dB), with 0 dB representing the quietest sound a healthy human ear can hear. The most common measurement used in judging sound level for hearing protection is called A-weighting, expressed as dBA. Each increase of 3 dBA indicates a doubling of the sound level. This means even small increases in dBA levels can lead to more severe impacts on your hearing. For example:
- 70 dBA: Hearing loss likely after prolonged exposure
- 80–85 dBA: Hearing loss likely after 2+ hours
- 120 dBA: Immediate hearing loss is possible
Causes of motorcycle-related hearing loss
Each time you ride, several sources of sound combine to produce loud, consistent noise. Let’s review those sources.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established motorcycle emission noise limits. Under the motorcycle exhaust systems standard (§205.166 Noise Emission), motorcycles with a model year of 1986 and newer are limited to 80 dBA, while older bikes may reach 83 dBA. As we noted above, prolonged exposure to sound in this range can contribute to hearing loss.
Road noise varies based on the road surface and traffic volume. One of the major causes of traffic noise is the sound of tires on the pavement. While traveling on busy highways, you can expect sound levels to reach or exceed 85 to 90 dBA. The farther you are from roaring tires—especially large truck tires, which can produce sound levels of 85 dBA at a range of 50 feet—the lower your risk of encountering dangerous road noise.
Wind noise is caused by the turbulence created as objects pass through the air. Turbulence causes the air to vibrate, creating sound. Here are approximate wind noise decibel levels you can expect to encounter riding on a typical highway or freeway:
- 30 mph: 75–90 dBA
- 50 mph: 90+ dBA
- 65 mph: 100+ dBA
Motorcycle hearing protection
While the factors that contribute to dangerous sound levels are frequently unavoidable while riding, there are steps you can take to manage and help reduce your risk of hearing damage.
Well-fitted, full-face helmets can help reduce your noise exposure as you ride, but even the best helmet can still leave you exposed to potentially damaging sound levels. Earplugs can supplement your helmet’s noise-reducing capabilities, but be aware that wearing earplugs while operating a motorcycle can be a safety risk, and in fact is illegal in many states. Check your state laws ahead of time.
You can also consider alternatives such as in-helmet earmuffs or noise-canceling headphones you can wear under your helmet. Again, check your state laws before riding to determine whether using these types of equipment while operating a motorcycle is legal where you’ll be riding.
As motorcyclists, we sometimes overlook the risks of hearing damage. Since hearing loss tends to be so gradual—and only noticeable after the damage is done—it’s easy for us to take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach. But by being proactive today, you can protect yourself in the future. Give your local Dairyland agent a call today to discover additional ways you can help protect yourself and your bike with safety resources and custom coverages.
Till next time, ride safe!
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