Earplugs Helpful, But Illegal For Ohio Motorcyclists

Earplugs might help motorcyclists deal with wind noise, but their use for drivers/riders are largely illegal in Ohio. (Tony Ganzer/WCPN)
Earplugs might help motorcyclists deal with wind noise, but their use for drivers/riders are largely illegal in Ohio. (Tony Ganzer/WCPN)
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By Tony Ganzer, ideastream

It’s that time of year again when streets are more often sounding with the growl of motorcycles, or in some cases the purr of a scooter: they may be small, but powerful.

Whatever the two-wheeled vehicle of choice, a rider—and other drivers—need to think about safety, and that includes something not always mentioned: hearing protection.  And it’s not necessarily the sound of the vehicle causing the biggest risk.

“It’s the wind, yeah, and it’s apparently permanent damage,” says Ralph Buss, a motorcycle accident attorney in Painesville.  He has a motorcycle in his office, left over from a previous case.

Attorney Ralph Buss in his office. (Tony Ganzer/WCPN)
Attorney Ralph Buss (Tony Ganzer/WCPN)

“Deafness is a serious problem that people don’t think about, don’t address,” Buss says.  “But when you talk to the average serious motorcyclist, he usually has to turn one ear or the other because one is pretty much shot.”

Ohio’s motorcycle operator manual does say hearing protection, like earplugs, can help reduce noise, while allowing a rider to hear important sounds like horns or sirens. 

But it also says riders should adhere to state laws, which creates a problem: using earplugs --in both ears-- in Ohio while operating a vehicle is illegal.  There are exceptions for emergency personnel, or road workers, but not for motorcyclists.

Attorney Ralph Buss challenged that law in court.  His client: Tom Varsel, who happened to be a retired noise expert for GM.  He was riding his motorcycle in Ohio.

“And he had, I think, gun earplugs in his ear, and a state highway patrol person noticed that, apparently going the other way, for some reason, and pulled him over,” Buss says.

Varsel was fined $37, but his case continued to an appellate court. He lost a constitutional challenge to the earplug law, but the case raised interesting issues.

(Tony Ganzer/WCPN)
(Tony Ganzer/WCPN)

“What’s clear is that wind noise on a motorcycle can be very intense, intense enough to damage your hearing,” says Eric Healy, a professor of hearing science at the Ohio State University who testified in Varsel’s case. “And what’s also crystal clear is that earplugs can remedy that, almost completely.”

To determine the level of wind noise motorcyclists face, Healy took a recording device for a drive with PhD students.

Imagine a mannequin head with anatomically correct ears, stuck out a window, “as a state trooper passed us looking very puzzled at what exactly we were doing,” Healy adds.

The measurements from that experiment, Healy says, matched previous work published in well-known British journals in the mid 1990s.  He found that at speeds as low as 35 mph, wind noise exceeded 85 decibels.

“Sounds over that are known to cause hearing damage.  The levels that we measured were in the range from 110 to 130db,” Healy says.

So earplugs, offering some 30db of potential reduction, might help.

Healy says some research points to earplugs making it more difficult to hear things like horns or sirens at very low speeds, but at normal driving speeds--from 35 or 40 mph--earplugs can help a rider hear better.  Healy says he’d like to explore that research more, but they are surprising findings.

Ohio State Rep. Al Landis (Tony Ganzer/WCPN)
Ohio State Rep. Al Landis (Tony Ganzer/WCPN)

“When you’re cruising along, especially if you’re on the interstate…that’s creating a lot of decibels in your ears,” says Al Landis, a Republican state representative from Dover, south of Canton. 

He rides a motorcycle and only rarely wears earplugs on longer trips.

“I would say 99.9% of the times I do not,” Landis adds.

Landis says he didn’t previously know about the law largely prohibiting earplugs—in both ears—which dates back to 1989

“Maybe what was developed in 1989 in the law certainly needs to have some rethinking because technology changes, the bikes have changed, the helmets have changed,” Landis says.

For their part, some helmet makers say no helmet can be quiet for everybody, and they default to: pick up some earplugs.

(Below, listen to Brian Weston, managing director for Arai Helmet, Inc., talk about noise and motorcycles.)



Despite that advice, and the research into wind noise, some motorcycle rights advocates in Ohio, and Representative Landis, say that bringing up the earplug issue might open a legislative Pandora’s Box, including possibly having to debate Ohio’s helmet laws.

“I think it’s something we could look at very casually, and maybe not upset the applecart legislatively,” Landis says. 

That’s what happened in California, which successfully changed its law in 2004, allowing earplugs that wouldn’t block horns or emergency sirens.

(Below, listen to Nick Haris, Western States Representative for the American Motorcyclist Association, talk about the effort to change California's earplug law)



One thing’s for sure: Representative Landis thinks people should have a right to protect their hearing not in just one…but in both ears.

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