Q: Is it legal to wear earplugs when riding a motorcycle on a public street or road?
— Steven S., Puyallup
A: Because the law doesn’t say you can’t, then the answer is yes.
“As long as someone can hear what’s going on around them — emergency sirens, horns, things of that nature — there’s nothing specific in the law that states you can or cannot” wear earplugs, Washington State Patrol Sgt. Paul Cagle said.
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Whether it’s a good idea is a deeper question.
Washington has a range of laws regarding safety requirements for driving a motorcycle. Helmets are required, for example. So is eye protection such as a windshield, goggles or a visor.
Other things aren’t legally required but remain solid choices, such as gloves and clothing to limit how much road rash you catch in the all-too-possible event that life takes your bike sideways.
The ears are a trickier concern.
Several medical studies suggest the road’s roar of engine and wind can harm motorcyclists’ hearing, especially if long rides are a habit sustained for years, as many do; the AARP even lends its imprimatur to a line of motorcyclist insurance policies.
And yet auditory damage isn’t a universal topic of concern when motorcycle safety is addressed.
The Snell Memorial Foundation, an independent organization that has for decades helped research and shape helmet safety standards, doesn’t consider hearing protection when evaluating helmets, said Steve Johnson, Snell’s lab manager.
Some helmet-makers, Johnson said, have tried damping down wind noise, but the need to keep a rider aware of the surrounding world — especially its horns, sirens and squealing brakes — has encouraged engineering approaches intended to let the outside world in, rather than muffle it entirely.
“A lot of helmet manufacturers have worked to make sure that you can still hear pretty well,” Johnson said.
Thus, while you can buy headgear from a Minnesota company claiming to offer “the world’s quietest motorcycle helmet,” other helmets leave hearing-conscious motorcyclists considering earplugs, even in a state with specific limits governing how loud motorcycles can be.
Under the law, this is a choice that can be freely made.
According to the State Patrol, Tacoma police and Tacoma traffic attorney Paul Landry, nothing in state law or the city’s municipal code bans motorcyclists from wearing earplugs — as long as they aren’t connected to anything, which takes our discussion from considerations of ability to wisdom.
State law does tell us the ears are important to safe driving. One statute bans earphones or headsets that are connected to sound devices and exclude other sounds.
A second law, which bans holding a cellphone to your ear while driving, states that an earpiece can be used for phone calls, but only in one ear. (The law exempts motorcycle helmets with built-in headsets approved by the State Patrol, but the State Patrol’s regulations address only federal impact-safety regulations, same as the Snell Foundation).
Safe drivers, said the State Patrol’s Cagle and Tacoma Police spokeswoman Loretta Cool, are attuned to the world around them, which blocking one of humanity’s five known senses would inherently inhibit.
“If you can hear better, you might be able to react to things,” Cool reasoned. “It’s kind of like the jogger who jogs with the earbuds in and they don’t hear the train honking the horn at them. I look at motorcycles the same way.”
Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693