Riding Your Motorcycle Could Be Wrecking Your Ears

It’s time to make some noise about hearing protection.

Earplugs for motorcyclists.
Earplugs for motorcyclists.Julia LaPalme

As motorcyclists, we’re diligent about wearing helmets and sturdy apparel to protect the parts of our bodies that are most likely to get injured in an accident. However, there’s a part of your body that may be suffering damage every time you ride, even if you never fall down—your ears. As riders we are regularly exposed to noise levels that put us at risk of permanent hearing loss, the same as industrial workers, heavy-metal musicians, and machine gunners. Since nobody wants to read lips or wear hearing aids when they get older, we decided that it’s time to make some noise about hearing protection.

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, noise-induced hearing loss is the most common permanent and preventable occupational injury in the world. Hearing loss can occur from a single extremely loud sound such as an explosion, but more often than not it’s incurred gradually over time. Just as skin cancer usually grows as a result of regular exposure to the sun, noise-induced hearing loss is most commonly the result of repeated and prolonged exposure to elevated noise levels. The unfortunate reality is that riding a motorcycle is a noisy endeavor, and the more you do it, the more likely you are to damage your hearing.

The most widely recognized resource for recommendations on noise-exposure limits is OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). OSHA offers a sliding scale showing that the louder the noise, the shorter the time your ears can safely be exposed to it. Noise intensity is measured in decibels and the decibel scale is logarithmic, so a noise that registers at 70 decibels (say, a vacuum cleaner) is 10 times louder than normal conversation, which typically rings in at 60 decibels. Sounds above 120 decibels (an ambulance siren) may be painful to hear and so would clearly pose a risk to your hearing health, but OSHA says permanent hearing loss can occur with sustained exposure (more than eight hours) above 85 decibels, or roughly the sound of a lawnmower—or the noise level inside your helmet while riding down the road at 65 mph.

According to an Ulster University, Ireland, study, "motorcyclists can be exposed to very high levels of noise and are an important population at risk of developing noise-induced hearing loss." When we think of motorcycles as a source of noise, exhausts systems are the first thing that comes to mind. But it's not the shriek of an open muffler on a sportbike or the thunderclap of straight pipes on a big V-twin that are the biggest threat, though loud pipes are certainly detrimental to your hearing (as well as to our image and rights as motorcyclists).

As it turns out, wind rushing around the rider is the biggest source of noise experienced by most motorcyclists, assaulting your ears with everything from booming low-frequency vibrations to whistling high-frequency noise. “Below about 40 miles per hour, machine, exhaust, and road noise predominates,” says Etymotic Research’s Doctor of Audiology Patty Johnson. Pick up the pace, however, and wind noise quickly becomes the main culprit—and a deafeningly loud one at that. Depending on the style of motorcycle you ride, cruising down the freeway at 80 mph may subject your ears to noise in excess of 110 decibels. That is equivalent to running a chainsaw at arm’s length and is loud enough that OSHA warns that without hearing protection you should limit exposure to 15 minutes or less per day. We don’t know about you, but we certainly want our rides to last more than 15 minutes!

How do loud noises damage your hearing? Deep within your ears are tiny hairs that vibrate in response to sound waves, converting the mechanical energy of sound into electrical impulses that are carried to the brain via the auditory nerve. Those tiny hairs are what get hammered when the volume goes up, and unfortunately once they’re damaged—reducing your sensitivity to high-frequency sounds—they don’t grow back. You’re born with about 16,000 to 20,000 of these little sound-sensing hair cells, but that’s it. Noise-induced hearing loss is subtle, cumulative, and permanent. It’s also entirely and easily preventable.

“If you’re looking for the maximum amount of sound reduction in a form that’s comfortable to wear, foam earplugs are a great choice,” Dr. Johnson says. Disposable earplugs are available in a variety of styles and materials (and colors!) and are far and away the cheapest, easiest, and most effective means of shielding your ears from excess noise. Buy them at any drug store or hardware store, practice putting them in properly, and make sure to keep several pairs in your riding jacket or tank bag.

“Earplugs are uncomfortable… They’re too hard to put in… The noise doesn’t bother me.” These are all common excuses expressed by those who don’t want to be bothered with sticking foam plugs in their ears or more likely have simply never experienced the serenity that is riding with earplugs. “I wear a full-face helmet, so I don’t need earplugs,” is another popular rationalization. Full-face helmets do provide some noise insulation, but a full-face lid isn’t enough. If you want to prevent damage to your hearing, earplugs are a must.

Most helmet manufacturers invest a fair amount of time and money making their helmets as aerodynamic as possible. Even so, helmets can be quite noisy. While ensconced in a full-face helmet, the primary source of wind noise is turbulence around the chin bar and the bottom of the helmet. Swirling air from your bike’s bodywork or windscreen is a contributing factor as well, but it’s how your helmet manages airflow that determines how loud it is. Besides a proper fit and an aerodynamic shell, features like chin curtains and neck rolls that seal the bottom of the helmet will go a long way toward reducing ambient noise.

Reducing ambient noise is a concern for some riders. If you plug your ears, how will you hear your bike’s engine or, more importantly, monitor traffic around you? The truth is earplugs don’t leave you in complete silence; they simply make the world a bit quieter. Just as putting on a pair of sunglasses limits the intensity of light entering your eyes, earplugs simply reduce the volume of sound that reach your ears. Your engine’s rpm and the sound of passing cars, their horns, and other noises are still entirely audible. In fact, wearing earplugs effectively reduces background (wind) noise, enabling you to hear the important stuff better.

“Earplugs filter out the wind noise and allow me to concentrate more on the engine,” says Josh Hayes, four-time AMA Superbike champion. “They also go a long way toward keeping me calm so I can concentrate on the task at hand.” Hayes touches on another important benefit of wearing earplugs, namely improving concentration and reducing the detrimental effects of elevated noise levels.

Not only does prolonged exposure to loud noise cause physical harm to your ears, but it’s been shown to have non-auditory effects including elevated heart rate, elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, fatigue, and anxiety. “Excessive sound exposure has the effect of being tiring on the whole body,” Dr. Johnson says, “and using earplugs can actually result in less fatigue after a long ride.”

So not only will wearing earplugs keep your ears safe, but they can help make you a safer, more relaxed, more concentrated rider.

The Noise-Control Helmet
The Noise-Control HelmetSEMA

What if instead of blocking noise, we could counter the sound’s waveform and literally erase it? That’s exactly what noise-cancelling headphones do, and that same active noise-control technology is finally making its way into motorcycle helmets.

Sena’s not-yet-released Noise-Control Helmet incorporates noise-isolating earmuffs and microphones, speakers, and a processor that analyzes ambient noise and then works to erase low-frequency sound waves. That means the booming roar of wind noise would be drastically reduced (studies suggest an attenuation of up to 40 decibels) while leaving high-frequency sounds—like sirens and spoken word—largely unaffected.

The Noise-Control Helmet is expected to be on the market in early 2017. Pricing has not yet been announced.


If you ride without earplugs you risk harming your hearing, but in some states riding with earplugs will put you at risk of a fine. While the vast majority of states have no restrictions on earplugs, several states have hearing-impairment laws for vehicle operators that make earplugs illegal or put them in a bit of a legal gray area. Ohio is famous for outlawing earplugs (though helmet speakers are okay), while in Maryland earplugs are fine—so long as they’re custom molded. In New York you’re only allowed to wear one earplug, while in California you’re in the clear as long as your earplugs don’t impede one’s ability to hear sirens and car horns.

To find out the particulars of your state's laws, visit the American Motorcyclist Association's law database.