On a round trip to Kerrville, TX, I gotta say the Texas Hill Country is a beautiful place to ride. Riding through the shade of a pecan bottom I see a large flock of wild turkey hens with this spring’s hatchlings. Further down the road, I stop for a turkey hen and her young ‘uns crossing the road.
But I digress from the main reason I write today: hearing protection on motorcycles.
The subject of hearing protection is dear to me. After a lifetime of hunting, handgun shooting, airplanes, motorcycles, and loud engines, my ears treat me daily to a cacophony of ringing, buzzes, and static. I’m OK with my current condition – I’ve made peace with it. Still, I now strive to avoid aggravating it, and I notice when I fail to use appropriate ear protection somebody turns up the volume on the ringing in my ears.
When riding motorcycles, especially on the highway, I use a pair of custom-made earplugs that are designed with a small hole through them so that big loud noise is brought to an acceptable level without completely blocking it out. Engine sounds are still heard. The tire-on-pavement noise of nearby traffic is heard. Sirens are heard. Even the conversation is heard. And it’s all allowed into the ear canal within an acceptable and safe level.
So the other day during my return from Kerrville, I’m driving down the highway at 75 m.p.h. (of course, I was driving 75 m.p.h. – that was the posted speed limit and I’m certainly not going to post in a public blog that I exceed the speed limit!), and I become aware of the noise level. I note the engine growl coming from my Harley Davidson Road Glide (with Screamin’ Eagle pipes and stage 1 intake upgrade with re-mapping), I note the road whine, and I note the whistling wind. It’s still loud and I know that when I put my head on the pillow tonight the noise will still be with me.
Helmet Choice for Noise Reduction
I choose to ride with a full-face helmet. I don’t preach to those who choose to go bare, they have that right (at least in states like my home state of Texas). But for myself, the steady stream of injured motorcyclists coming into my practice keeps me motivated to wear protective gear, including a helmet, each and every ride.
OK, I’m off my helmet soapbox. On my Kerrville ride, I was riding with a relatively new Soumy full-face helmet with an adventure-bike design. I typically use the helmet on an adventure bike, but this trip I wear it because it’s significantly more comfortable than my Shoei full-face.
And during my return trip I note the loudness of the noise. Even with earplugs.
So, once home, I go to my favorite local gear store and buy a Bell RS-1 full-face helmet. I buy it largely because my Shoei helmet doesn’t fit my head well and I avoid using it. And the best helmet provides little protection sitting at home in the closet. The Bell by comparison is very comfortable.
I write about my new helmet purchase for two reasons: 1) A comfortable helmet is a must – an uncomfortable helmet stays in the closet; and, 2) a properly purposed helmet is important – the Suomy adventure helmet is great for that use, and I still wear it for adventure riding, but the Bell provides much better noise attenuation while still being plenty comfortable for my head.
Whether you ride with the most expensive full-face helmet or you choose to go bareheaded, extended riding at highway speeds really demands ear protection. I’ve previously written about the subject here. Suffice it to say that noise levels on motorcycles at highway speed exceed safe levels and it will damage your hearing. Even if you ride a bike with civilized, quiet mufflers, the wind noise alone can and will damage your hearing.
I chose to spend about $160 on my custom earplugs. But foam plugs that cost next to nothing also do a great job of protecting your hearing. In fact, I keep a package of foam plugs in my Tour-Pak in case I forget to bring my custom plugs.
The custom earplugs also allow me to still hear in-the-helmet speakers, so I don’t lose my groove while riding.
The Law of Earplugs
A lot of people ask me whether it’s legal to wear earplugs while operating a motorcycle. Here’s my best lawyer answer: it depends.
It depends on which state you’re riding in. The vast majority of states allow it. But, a handful prohibits it.
I’ve summarized the statutes of the 50 states and the District of Columbia concerning earplugs and stereo headsets. You can click here to view your state’s laws. Here are the highlights:
- Alaska and Ohio have an outright ban on the use of earplugs in both ears.
- California prohibits earplugs but provides an exception for, “earplugs or molds that are specifically designed to attenuate injurious noise levels.” Maryland similarly prohibits earplugs with an exception for, “personal hearing protectors in the form of custom earplugs or molds that are designed to reduce injurious noise levels.”
- Virginia prohibits the use of “earphones on or in both ears” and defines “earphones” as stereo-type speakers or “any device which impairs or hinders the person’s ability to hear.” This last part would seem to include earplugs in the definition of earphones.
- The remaining states do not prohibit earplugs. (A quick CYA lawyer disclaimer: 33 states and the District of Columbia have no laws on the books prohibiting earplugs, headsets, earphones, or speakers in the helmet, while 11 states have some form of prohibition of earphones, headsets, or speakers in the helmet, but do not seem to have any prohibition on earplugs.)
- Finally, even in states that don’t have a statewide law pertaining to earplugs, some local ordinances within the states may prohibit earplugs. Doing a broad-based search of all city and town ordinances is a very difficult and unwieldy task – beyond the scope of this blog – but a quick Google search disclosed a couple of them: Bartlett, Tennessee (near Memphis) has an ordinance prohibiting a stereo headset or “any other type headset in or over the ears which reduces the ability to hear audible warning signals of approaching emergency vehicles,” and Kansas City, Missouri has an ordinance, “A person shall not drive a vehicle or bicycle with earplugs in both ears.”
The bottom line is, I want you guys to be safe. And part of safe is protecting our precious gift of hearing. For some of us, it may be too late. You know, the guy who says, “Huh?” to everything. For others of us, like me, from whom “Huh?” is a common utterance but who can still make out a lot of what is said, earplugs will postpone the hearing aids. And finally, we who experience daily the consequences of a lifetime of poor choices around loud noise need to stop for the young ‘uns among us who still have their good hearing and remind them how important the earplugs are.