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Motorcyclists Challenge State Laws Banning Use Of Earplugs


Drivers, listen up. If you're wearing earplugs while driving, even if you're listening to our program, you may be violating the law. While this is not usually an issue for people behind the wheel, some who ride motorcycles say they need earplugs to protect them from the noise of the road. Without ear protection, riders worry they'll go deaf. From member station WCPN in Cleveland, Tony Ganzer reports.

TONY GANZER, BYLINE: You may think the biggest problem with sound while on a big bike or, in my case, a small-but-trusty scooter would be the vehicles themselves, but that's not usually the case.

RALPH BUSS: It's the wind, yeah. And it's bound to be permanent damage.

GANZER: Ralph Buss is an Ohio motorcycle accident attorney. He has a motorcycle in his office left over from a previous case.

BUSS: Deafness is a serious problem that people don't think about, don't address. 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.

GANZER: The challenge when you're cruising on two wheels is the wind whipping about your head. This is what 35 miles per hour sounds like on a quiet scooter. The wind begins to drown out other sounds. Some riders use earplugs to help lessen the noise, but that leads to another risk, like a fine. Last year, Ralph Buss lost an appeal defending a motorcyclist who was ticketed for wearing ear plugs. It is illegal to use earplugs in both ears while operating a vehicle unless you're an emergency or road worker. Eric Healy is a hearing science professor at the Ohio State University who testified in the earplug challenge.

ERIC HEALY: What's clear is that wind noise on a motorcycle can be very, very intense, intense enough to damage your hearing. And what's also crystal clear is that earplugs can remedy that, you know, almost completely.

GANZER: 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. His findings matched previous research showing that at speeds as low as 35 miles per hour, wind noise exceeded 85 decibels.

HEALY: Sounds over that are known to cause hearing damage. The levels that we measured were in the range of 110 to 130 dB.

GANZER: So he says earplugs, which could drop noise levels 30 DB or so, are useful. Even a helmet might not be the answer. One helmet maker says it now defaults to advising riders to wear earplugs. But riders face confusion trying to discern what is legal. In Ohio, for instance, you can't wear earplugs, but South Dakota, on the other hand, has no earplug law on the books. And in Maryland, only custom ear plugs or molds are allowed. That is similar to a law California used to have.

NICK HARIS: We couldn't find a sort of illegal justification for it.

GANZER: Nick Haris is the western states representative with the American Motorcyclist Association. It worked to change California's law in 2004 from allowing custom plugs to any plugs as long as riders and drivers could still hear horns or sirens.

HARIS: When we started having these discussions with the legislature, nobody came out of the woodwork, let's say, and had a reason why the language existed in that manner.

GANZER: Harris says there's no real effort on ear plug because there's no uniform federal earplug law addressing it. Back in Ohio, there's no big rush to change that state's ban on using earplugs. While some state lawmakers think the issue could be raised without upsetting the apple cart, others worry that bringing up one motorcycle issue might attract unwanted debate over controversial helmet laws. But then again, if riders don't find a way to protect their ears, some may not hear anything much at all. For NPR News, I'm Tony Ganzer in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tony Ganzer