Hearing loss – and help – for motorcycle riders

Do you wear earplugs when you ride? I don’t. Never have in close on four decades, and my hearing’s just fine, thank you.

All my friends wear them, and they’re always amazed when I shrug them off. They stand there, stuffing foamies into their ears when I’ve already got my helmet on. Then I say something to them and they just look at me blankly, until I shout or wave my hands.

Sometimes though,  on a longer ride, it gets to me and I wish I had a pair of plugs. My ears start ringing, and when I next pull over, I fish around in my jacket pocket and half the time there’s a pair of plugs in there and half the time there isn’t. I lose them often.

If I find a pair, I’ll squeeze the foam and squish it as far into my ear as it’ll go, then quickly put on the helmet as the foam expands. If I’m fast enough, the plug will only pop half out of my ear before the helmet’s on, and then I can poke around up the side to try to shove the rest of the plug back into my ear. If I’m not fast enough, the plug pops out too far and I have to take the helmet back off and then the plug falls out into a puddle and that’s that.

And – that’s that.

The trouble is, the inside of my right ear is smaller than the inside of my left ear. Not much, but just enough to mean I can’t wear my iPhone ear buds without the right bud falling out. The whole fiddling-around thing with ear plugs under my helmet is annoying, so I don’t bother.

I once had a pair of high-quality flanged ear plugs, which resembled little rubber mushrooms on a stick, that were much easier to put into my ears. They worked well but they’d still pop out when the helmet came off, so they were quickly lost. They were fairly expensive at around $20 a pair and not easy to find for sale, unless you go online, so they were never replaced.

But I know I’m more comfortable in the long run with some form of hearing protection, and I’ve read the articles and warnings about hearing loss for motorcycle riders. We’re not talking loud pipes, but wind noise — apparently, at speeds above 60 km/h, it’s the wind noise that just takes over all the sound.

This is especially true if you ride without a helmet. Of course, no Canadian province permits this on public roads, but there are still plenty of American states that do and there are plenty of Canadian riders who leave their helmets back in the motel when they have the opportunity. Ride your bike for an hour on the interstate with just a do-rag and it’ll be a while before you can hear properly again.

Wyatt and Billy on the highway – I SAID, WYATT AND BILLY ON THE HIGHWAY.
THE STATS

The science states that any noise above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss eventually, if sustained for long enough. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, you can be subjected to 90 dB of noise for up to eight hours before there’s the potential for damage — that’s the noise of a hair dryer or a food mixer, and it’s no big deal.

Wind noise at cruising speed, however, can easily exceed 100 dB, which has an official tolerance threshold of two hours, and that’s the noise that makes it through the helmet. It’s the equivalent of a gas lawnmower, or full volume on an MP3 player. With no helmet, or a poorly designed helmet, the noise can be as loud as 115 dB, which is exponentially louder — not 15 per cent louder, but close to 100 times as loud, right up there with a jet aircraft on takeoff. Ouch.

You just know that’s loud, and it can be just as loud out on the highway.

I’ve never really been too bothered by this because I have a pretty quiet Shoei helmet, which is well-insulated. Recently, though, I’ve taken to wearing an open-face helmet for local rides on my Harley Low Rider, and a full-face Zox helmet that lifts up at the front and includes a tinted sun visor beneath the full visor. The Zox is less insulated than the Shoei and my ears will be ringing at the end of a day in the saddle.

EARS FULL OF SILICONE

Then last month, I was at the Toronto Motorcycle Show and I saw the Big Ear booth, which sells custom molded earplugs. Big Ear is an American company that sets up business at most of the bike shows and I’ve been meaning to talk to them for a while, but they’re always busy. This time, however, it was press day and fairly quiet, so I struck up a conversation with owner Glenn Hood. When he saw my press badge, he offered me a pair of custom-fit plugs for free if I wanted to try them out and I was happy to give them a go. They list on his website for $85 U.S., but he usually charges $65 CAD at the shows, taxes in.

It’s a simple concept. You sit on a stool and he looks in your ear to make sure it’s fairly clean – if it’s bunged up with wax, the plug won’t fit properly. Then he inserts a little temporary blocker to act as a barrier against the ear drum, asks you what colour you’d like your plugs, and then injects that colour of medical silicone into your ear until it fills everything. You sit there for a few minutes letting it set, then it’s removed and left another 45 minutes to completely set. It’s also covered with a clear coat of silicone as protection, and it feels rubbery but is fairly firm.

Earplugs at the Big Ear booth quietly setting, waiting to be matched with their future owners.

Here’s the kicker: each plug sets to the exact shape of your ear, so when it comes time to use them, you place the plug against the ear, give it a twist, and it rolls right in. And then it just sits there, unable to fall out, because the shape of your inner ear is such that there are bends and twists and ridges, which are all now a part of the shape of your plugs. Put the plugs in and they fit flush into your ear and stay there. Your ears are now fully filled with silicone that absorbs 25 to 30 dB of noise.

I realized the benefit to this immediately: I can sleep with earplugs! When you’re married to someone who snores like an enraged camel, this is truly a blessing. When you fly a lot, this is wonderful.

While they’re setting, Hood pokes a little dip into the right plug so you can tell which is which. I asked for blue plugs, but in hindsight, I should have asked for different colours: red for the right, and maybe a mix of red and black for the left. This is what Zac did when we went to the Big Ear booth the next day for his own set, which he’ll write about later this season. I’d shared a hotel room with him that night, and wore the plugs to bed in case he snored badly. Does he snore badly? I don’t know — I was asleep.

Glenn Hood loads Zac up with silicone at the bike show.

Hood says he sells custom ear plugs to people in many different professions who need protection from noise, and to musicians and marching bands. He also sells plugs that include resonators and filters to act as speakers, so you can use them instead of ear buds while riding. I can’t vouch for them and their quality of reproduction but they’re probably good — there’s a wide variety on his website and they sell for hundreds of dollars. At the show, he’ll take the silicone casting for such plugs and charge you $350, and then have the earplug speakers made for you — they’ll arrive in the mail after about three weeks.

THE RESULTS

I started to wear the earplugs to bed and found them comfortable and unobtrusive – and effective against enraged camels. I flew to Texas and tried them on the plane, but they weren’t quite so good. The steady thrum of the engines was still there, though considerably muffled, but I prefer my noise-cancelling Bose headphones to remove the sound without deadening potential conversation. For sleeping on a plane, however, when your head lies to one side, I’m sure they’ll be highly effective.

And then, last week, the weather turned unseasonably warm in Toronto and I fired up the Harley for a ride. My bike is not especially loud — it has the stock pipes — but I rolled the earplugs into my ears anyway and they just stayed there. Then I slipped on the Shoei and headed off up the road toward Rice Lake.

It was a whole different feeling riding my bike with the Big Ear plugs. I wasn’t sure I liked it. I couldn’t really hear the exhaust, but I could hear all kinds of other sounds: the drive belt and the gears and various new, unknown noises coming from the engine. Perhaps the plugs were just too muffling. I worried that if something went wrong with the bike, I wouldn’t be able to hear the warnings. The plugs were comfortable, though.

The Editor looking comfortable, enjoying the warmth of a February day outside Toronto. I SAID, THE EDITOR…

After half an hour, I took them out just to listen to the difference and set off again. This time, I still couldn’t hear the exhaust at cruising speed but I could certainly hear the wind. Worse, I could hear the clatter of my partly-open visor — I never completely shut the visor because I like the fresh air. I lasted less than five minutes before I stopped and put the ear plugs back in. This time, knowing what they were muffling, the ride was wonderful.

When I got home, I didn’t even pull out the plugs but instead swapped helmets and went for a quick boot up Hwy. 401 at 120 km/h in the louder Zox. It was a world of improvement. There was minimal wind noise, but now I could hear the more familiar sounds of the engine with greater clarity. It was like a super-quiet helmet should be without plugs, and I knew I could have ridden all day with no ringing in the ears at the end of it. Of course it was quiet — my ears were stuffed with muffling silicone.

Suffice to say, I’m sold, and I don’t intend to ride for more than just a few minutes without ear plugs again. Yes, I got them for free and at $65 they’re a lot more expensive than foam disposable plugs, but next time I get on the bike I’ll be riding back up to the donkey sanctuary at Rice Lake and making a $65 donation.

Don’t be an ass – use protection for your ears!

You may be happy with wearing foam plugs, and if so, that’s great. They’re inexpensive and sold everywhere. If you’re not though, do yourself a favour and get some custom-fitted silicone plugs the next time you’re at a motorcycle show. Send Glenn Hood an email and ask him when he’ll next be in your area. And if Big Ear isn’t around, there are some other silicone ear plug fitters that do a similar job for a similar price, like Nu-Life Hearing, which was also at the show.

The important thing is that you recognize your ears are priceless, and once they’re damaged, they can’t be repaired. Don’t let your motorcycle ruin your hearing. It’s not too late to start wearing plugs. And if your plugs can also protect you at night from the snorts and bellows of enraged camels, well, that’s just a bonus.

11 thoughts on “Hearing loss – and help – for motorcycle riders”

  1. Custom fit ear plugs are a waste of money if you can wear the common foam plugs which do the job just as well. Note too that not all noise that you experience comes in via the ear. It also penetrates via your skeletal frame.

  2. I’ve been wearing ear plugs for years, but the foam ones I started off with would increase pressure over a 12 or 16 hour day, and become painful later on. Once I went to custom fit that issue went away, although I still experience minor discomfort over very long days.

    What I find interesting, is that with the Arai dual sport helmet, and an aftermarket taller windscreen, I find that earplugs set up a harmonic that bothers me to the point that I feel much better without them in. I was thinking of lowering the screen as the Arai likes more unspoiled air hitting it, and will try the ear plugs again.

    My rule of thumb has always been ear plugs for super slab, optional for secondary slower speed roads. I don’t leave home without them.

  3. They make these with built in speaker buds (or space for them?) which I was thinking of getting, as I’m nearly always listening to music using ear buds when riding – ear buds because I never heard a bike stereo that works well and those that do are obnoxiously loud for everyone else. Just never priced them out.

  4. If foam earplugs are falling out of your ears, you’re either not inserting them correctly, or you have ones that are the wrong size (too small, most likely) for your ear holes. Properly inserted foam earplugs need to be pulled out of the ear canals, carefully and gently as they seal so well. There’s no way they’re coming out on their own.

    1. You’d think, right? I’ve been shown – several times, by industrial safety people – how to insert earplugs because I assumed I was doing it wrong. I’ve tried squeezing the ends of the cylinder instead of rolling it into a thinner tube, and I’ve tried both the standard size and the smaller size. Nothing ever stayed in. The upshot was that they would be fiddly to get into my ears in the first place, and then they’d work their way half-out under the helmet, and then one, usually the right side but sometimes the left, would always just fall out when I removed my helmet. When Glenn Hood looked at the shape of my ear canal from the form of the custom-molded plug, he said, “well, that’s interesting…” and pointed out the strange shape of one side. All that said, I still have excellent hearing, but I know I’ve been on borrowed time.

      1. I shouldn’t have implied that you don’t know how to use earplugs properly. Very strange, though, for properly inserted plugs to fall out. But some people’s ear canals (like yours, for example) may not be compatible with foam plugs, I guess.

        1. I should add that I got custom-fitted plugs done at the show some years ago, with built-in speakers. For me the custom fitted plugs don’t work well – as I move my head and jaw around into different positions, the plugs sometimes seal well and other times don’t – my ear canal must change shape and size as I move.

      2. Just wondering if you feel your hearing is still excellent because there is no apparent problem, or if your hearing test results say so?
        Reason for asking is that I felt my hearing was fine ie no problem with speech recognition etc-then I was tested for work, and as it turns out I have severe noise induced hearing loss at high frequencies. I am essentially deaf at 6000 Hz, although my speech recognition is normal. it will only get worse with age and noise exposure.
        As well, I can tell you that tinnitus (ringing in the ears) is no joke. I will be living with the sound of a mosquito swarm in my ears for ever.
        There is no cure for hearing loss or tinnitus, and once you realize there is a problem it is too late.

        1. After many years of riding and music at high-volume, I have now lost just those speech-recognition frequencies (I’m 65). I’m having to repeatedly, every day, ask people to repeat what they just said – and often still can’t understand some voices and all movie/TV dialogue. I started wearing foam ear protectors about 10 years ago, but it was too late and the problem is still getting worse. Permanent hearing loss is very embarrassing, inconvenient, and I have no one to blame but myself. It should be taken seriously at an earlier age, even if you think noise doesn’t affect you.

    2. Sure but what you probably didn’t take account of is the first and second bends in your ear. For you to get the full hearing protection from a foam Ear plug, you have to get the foam Ear plug so deep in your ear that it would require you to take it out with a set of keys or twizzer. Not only that but you could also be damaging your ear while doing that.

  5. Years ago, the first thing I did when I bought a bike was to change the exhaust for something louder. Then I started doing longer trips and realized the wind noise drove me nuts. So I started wearing the basic foam ones. Helped a bit but not enough. Fast forward – I dont swap out the exhaust from stock, bought custom fitted earplugs and searched the internet for the quietest helmets. Yes, I became anal about noise but I do feel more relaxed at the end of the ride. How people can ride without a helmet is beyond me, let alone not having ear protection.

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