Is Your Motorcycle Helmet Making You Deaf?

08/05/2011 @ 10:50 am, by Jensen Beeler21 COMMENTS

I ride bikes for a living, in case you didn’t know this already. I ride more miles on two wheels in a year, than the average American does in their automobile (I put more four-wheel miles down a year than the average American does as well, if that gives you any idea how much of Asphalt & Rubber is written while on the road). With all this riding, I’ve become increasingly concerned over my hearing, as I’d like still to have it when I’m older. Thus for my own personal benefit, I’ve been trying out the different kinds of ear protection that are available to motorcyclists, as well as a variety of helmets from manufacturers (articles surely to ensue).

So when the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America published a study titled “Aeroacoustic Sources of Motorcycle Helmet Noise” in which the various frequencies and decibel levels of helmet-generated noise were measured and tested, I became very interested in the study’s findings. Bear in mind I’m a staunch believer in helmet laws and riding with a full-face helmet (my apologies to the Libertarians in the group), so when the study suggested that my two main concerns regarding my head may be at odds with each other, it piqued my interest.

The study conducted by the University of Bath and Bath Spa University in England performed a very intuitive test where they placed a mannequin’s head in a wind tunnel, turned on the wind, and recorded the sound volume and frequency at various points in and around the helmet. The conclusion was that at even normal legal riding speeds, deafening levels of sound were reaching the eardrum, primarily due to the chin bar on the helmet.

The researchers plan on following up the wind tunnel test with real-life situational testing, but the results so far are interesting. The idea that the helmet itself could be creating wind noise that could deafen a rider over time is a bit shocking, but not counterintuitive. The obvious affect from this study is that it will give some fodder to the anti-helmet law consortium, though I’d like to be the first to point out the fallacy in that logic, since there’s no data at this point to suggest that the basic wind noise from riding helmetless isn’t any less damaging (I don’t think we need a university study to figure this one out, just maybe a college writing class to fix that double-negative).

Instead the takeaway here is perhaps how extra important wearing ear protection with your helmet is to your hearing, and also perhaps shines a light on an industry segment that hasn’t seen a tremendous amount of innovation and progress in the past 30 years. While composite materials have changed, and perhaps the perception of safety with them, the fact remains that we still see helmet manufacturers not addressing how the motorcycle helmets have failed to change with consumers’ needs (active noise reduction? hands-free communication?).

Maybe if a published study shows proof that helmets are creating noise that causes hearing loss, more than say riding without a helmet, helmet manufacturer will perceive that there’s a product liability situation and improve on their design before some crafty lawyers show up at their door. Just sayin’…

Source: DealerNews

  • Keith

    only about 10 or so years behind the american research. No how many of you have worn ear plugs for over 30 years? (raises hand high and proud) Did ANY of you need some grad student with a mic to tell you that the helmet internal Db is over 100? Hmmmm?

    Next I suppose the experts will tell us the sky is actually blue.

  • Keith, I think the distinction here is not that the volume inside the helmet is loud and deafen, but the fact that helmets could be making that volume even louder.

  • Kevin

    I’ve worn earplugs with my helmet for years. It didn’t take long to realize that more than a few minutes of wind noise at 70+ mph was damaging. I find that ear plugs aren’t that inhibiting and that the trade off for increased venting and a cooler head is worth it.

    I can’t speak to the wind noise without a helmet, because I always wear a full face helmet…law or no law.

  • BikePilot

    Even with good earplugs I sometimes wonder if the noise will cause hearing loss over time for those of us who spend a lot of time on a bike. I suspect the real world test will be a lot different by bike, road conditions and rider. I’ve noticed for example on a bandit 1250 its quite loud at 80mph in a normal riding position, but if I stand up the noise drops by probably half – presumably a lot of noise is from turbulence off the windscreen, mirrors etc. (or, more precisely, is from turbulent air striking the helmet).

    I’ve also noticed that my bell star is much quieter if I’m leaning forward sport-bike-style than sitting upright on the dual sport even absent turbulence.

    I’d pay a lot for a super-quiet ANR lid as long as it wasn’t heavy.

  • Shawn

    “Bear in mind I’m a staunch believer in helmet laws and riding with a full-face helmet (my apologies to the Libertarians in the group)…”

    No need to apologize for safety advocacy!

  • Westward

    I think the easy solution to counter the wind noise, would be, to drown it out with loud exhaust pipes…

  • what!?

  • Rexr

    No cos I have a shoei adjust the visor so it seals properly and use a good pair of ear plugs… wind noise…….simples

  • Hearing loss among we riders and rockers is inevitable. Too many great engines and songs to be heard.

    Even with lots of hearing protection, race engines and amps will take their toll, and even my friends and relatives who play with stem cells and ears for a living say that regenerating nerve cells and treating the cochlea is a long time away and very tricky business. Blame Yamaha!

    Nerve cell regeneration is showing signs of life, yes, but to get them inside the sealed containers that is the cochlea….how will they do THAT?

  • By the way, i recently got one of those “socks” that sticks to the outside/bottom of the helmet and has soft light, elastic (Pro Line is the brand name on it, presumably not the fishing boat manufacturer). About $15 on Ebay, shipped from the UK.

    It finally mutes the wind noise that ear plugs won’t. This is on a Fulmer helmet; perhaps other brands have some of that type of wind-noise-reducing material designed in.

  • Lisa G

    The windblockers that close the area around the neck do wonders for helmet noise. Properly inserted foamie earplugs are required. If I forget to put them in, I stop at the first convenient place and do it. I think there are a lot of things that can be done to improve the noise of motorcycle helmets. A flight helmet developed for pilots two decades ago featured earcups that were tensioned against the ear after the helmt was in place. Having a ear cup around the ear that was sealed did a lot to bring down the noise. Why not in a motorcycle helmet? Another thing for EMTs to learn but I would take that risk.

  • Gus

    About 3 years ago I took the plunge and bought a set of Westone in-ear monitors. These are what musicians wear. They weren’t cheap and I had to go to an audiologist to have impressions of my ears made, but the result was well worth the price. They allow me to listen to music while at the same time getting about 25 DB noise reduction. Another strong point is that they have an almost no-profile design so getting the helmet on and off with them in my ear isn’t an issue (no more ear buds flying off).
    I just went looking for the link to add here and found this:

  • Bjorn

    For the first 5 years of my riding life I never considered earplugs. After an older and wiser friend put me onto the idea of earplugs I embraced them wholeheartedly. Not so much because of the long-term hearing protection, but because I found the noise reduction improved concentration; allowing me to ride any given sequence of bends faster.
    Fast forward another twelve years and I had a hearing test as part of a pre-employment medical examination. The docs found, “A significant degree of hearing loss commensurate with riding a motorcycle without hearing protection.” It was either that or all the punk bands I saw in my youth.
    Hearing does not regenerate and despite protecting my hearing scrupulously over the past 16 years; it was the damage done prior to that point that means I have trouble picking out the thread of a conversation when there is any background noise.

  • The study and stated experiences here help identify the importance of wearing ear plugs even if wearing full face motorcycle helmets.

  • proud41american

    I work in a helicopter on a daily basis, and our helmets are equipped with Active Noise Reduction (ANR). I always wear soft earplugs in my full-face motorcycle helmets (would never ride w/o one), but I’m looking forward to the day when ANR technology advances to the point where motorcycle helmets will have it built-in, and it’s powered by an easily-replaceable AAA or AA battery.

  • Sean in Oz

    The thing I noticed most about wearing ear plugs while riding was that I felt less mentally fatigued after a long ride.

    The chin bar on a helmet is already a trade off in strength between being strong enough to protect against an impact and weak enough to avoid spinal injury. Redesigning it for wind noise as well may be a poor compromise when earplugs are cheap and effective.

    Designing helmets for wind noise will always be a difficult since the position of the helmet in the airflow differs significantly between riders and bikes.

  • Westward

    I have a few pair of in-ear headphones to choose from, that I usually wear, that seem to effectively act as earplugs. Also, whenever I get a phone call or need to make one, it is easy enough for me to pull over and conduct a call without having to remove my helmet.

    I know there are noise reduction headphones that they sell, generally for people that travel on planes and trains, that are the in-ear type. I’m sure those could be somewhat helpfully to certain individuals…

  • Odie

    I did a tour in Naval Aviation back in the 90’s and they had spent a lot of money in trying to keep their sailors from loosing hearing around jets. So, they had these “cranials”. You see them on everyone’s head in any video of flight deck operations. They include sound attenuators that, I thought, were pretty good. When I left the Navy they gave me a exit physical and they compared my hearing before and after. Even during the testing itself, I could tell the difference. When the technician compared the results, he went “Whoa! That’s not good”. I had lost quite a bit even though I was very diligent about wearing my cranial.

    I started riding motos just a few years ago and I it took one ride at highway speeds to give me ringing in the ears for a few days.

    Now, I don’t ride without really good earplugs. I mean, if I can’t find my earplugs, I cancel my ride.

    I also notice that I can focus better on my riding when I have good earplugs in.

  • mxs

    Why in the world would anyone think that wearing a full face helmet is OK without wearing ear plugs????

    Who needs a study for that, raise your hand … common, don’t be shy.

  • Jake Fox

    Wow… I commute every day without ear plugs. It’s only about a 15 minute commute, 6 miles each way. I’m only on the highway for a few minutes of that. I’ve never noticed a problem but do you think I should wear ear plugs? My Arai full-face always seemed pretty quiet to me.

  • Greg in oz

    I have tried earplugs over the last couple of years but I can’t seem to find a make that is comfortable and adequately reduces the noise. I have a Nolan helmet and find that if i wear a scarf around my neck most of the noise disappears, this Ok on Canberra’s minus 8 winter mornings but not much fun on a 40 degree summer afternoon. I have also found that wearing a hoody is just about as effective at reducing noise as the scarf and both are better than earplugs! It is better to remove the cause of the noise (turbulence around the helmet rim) than reduce the impact of the noise with earplugs. I wish the manufacturers would take this problem more seriously but maybe they can’t hear our plees’?