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Convertibles: Top Down Cause of Hearing Loss

Taking to the open road in your new convertible this weekend? How cool is that? Wind blowing through your hair, the sun shining down on the open cockpit, the feeling of sprouting wings and taking flight and, oh yea, the risk of hearing loss as you cruise down the interstate.

A recent study, conducted by a British group from the Worcestershire Royal Hospital in the UK, clearly demonstrates that, indeed, while convertibles are a ton of high-speed fun, they can also lead to hearing loss – hearing loss that never returns to “normal.”

Dr. Philip Michael, lead author of the study, explained in a recent posting on WebMD: “If you are exposed for long periods of 85 decibels (dB) [of sound], you have the potential for hearing loss. The maximum noise occurred at 70 miles per hour and reached the sound threshold of 89dB. It has the potential for causing long-term hearing loss.”

Loudness and Hearing Loss

So, is that one more thing we should avoid – riding in convertibles, top down at full throttle? Well, it’s something to think about. A normal conversation with Aunt Tillie puts out roughly 60dBs of “loudness” – sound pressure levels. A rock concert can pump 115 dBs down through nature’s ear gear. So what are we supposed to do for fun? Most of us are too young for the ol’ rocking chair. We want to rock on down the road with the top down, too.

Isn’t that what makes life so much fun? Why does all the fun stuff seem to be bad for us? That’s what I want to know.

The problem isn’t just the loudness. It’s the length of time our ears are exposed to high levels of noise. It’s the combination of loudness and length of time exposed to loud noise that cause permanent damage to the hearing mechanism – a very sensitive, delicate system comprised of the thousands of sensory hair cells within the cochlea that, when exposed to loud noise over time, simply wear out.

Hearing loss caused by long-term exposure to sound levels over 85dBs is one of the most common causes of hearing loss – even among young people. The fact is hearing professionals are seeing younger and younger patients.

Why? Constant exposure to loud volume sound delivered by MP3 players and those ear buds stuck in the ears. So what’s this about driving around in a convertible?

Well, the sound produced by the wind and road vibration pushes sound levels above the threshold of safety – 85dBs.

Bottom line: any exposure to noise in excess of 85dBs over a long time frame can (and does) cause damage to all those tiny ear pieces that work in conjunction to enable you to hear.

Hitting the Open Road

convertibles hearing loss
Driving and riding in convertibles may cause hearing loss

Motorcyclists are exposed to even louder noise – especially Harley riders. These road rockets are designed to make that distinctive, growling sound that identifies the bike as a Harley. (Quick side note: H-D tried to trademark the sound made by their motorcycles but you can’t copyright protect a sound, so a lot of motorcycle designers and engineers work late nights trying to replicate the H-D sound.)

Smart bikers, safe bikers, wear helmets that muffle some of the sound. And the real smart riders also insert hear-through ear plugs that enable them to hear road noise and warnings of danger – a honking horn, for example – without causing damage to the inner ear.

The less “evolved” riders don’t wear helmets OR earplugs, but they look cool. Of course, in a few years, they’ll be visiting the local hearing professional to find out what that ringing sound is all about, but in the meanwhile, they sure do look cool.

Okay, it’s easy to understand why motorcycle owners need to protect their hearing. There’s a lot of sound going on around them and, for cruisers on an all day ride, the sound of the bike and the wind will take its toll. Especially if the rider fires up her Harley to get to work each day.

But convertibles? They’re cars. They’re designed for fun. So, why is the medical community taking something we all enjoy and taking the joy out of it? Simple common sense. The cars tested for sound levels were:

  • Toyota M2R (so cool looking you want to marry it)
  • Mazda Miata Mx5 (sporty)
  • Audi A4 Cabriolet (sporty, cool and way expensive)
  • Morgan Plus 4 Roadster (tried and true)
  • Porsche 997 Carrera ( are you kidding, it’s the Porsche)
  • Aston-Martin V-8 Vantage (super-charged, top-down fun machine. And fast, too.)
  • Bentley Convertible (go deaf elegantly)

Frankly, you might think Dr. Michael and his team of hearing specialists undertook their research just so they could ride around in these cool machines, but there’s some serious business going on here.

“We measured the noise by the driver’s ear,” Dr. Michael explained at a conference held by the American Academy of Otolaryngology in San Diego – a great city for convertibles, by the way. Noise by the driver’s roadside ear was measured for one minute using a sound level meter.

Drivers put pedal to metal to reach test speeds of 50, 60 and 70 miles per hour with windows down and top stored in the boot. (The trunk, to Americans.) Tests were also conducted with windows up, as well. Sure, why not? You got the car on the road anyway so run a bunch of tests under a variety of driving conditions.

When drivers reached speeds of 70 mph, the noise level reached 89dB A – loud enough to cause hearing loss. And that doesn’t take into account the radio blasting our favorite tunes to go along for the ride. That adds even more noise to that fun Sunday drive through the countryside.

Radio blasting, wind rushing by, the road rumble – all add up to a potent cocktail of sound that, over time, will cause hearing loss. Permanent hearing loss.

The higher the speed, the louder the sound. And, it didn’t matter what kind of convertible was used in testing – a high-priced, spiffy Porsche or a mid-priced Miata. The noise levels were still high enough to cause hearing loss when driver and passenger were exposed over a long period of time.

Roll up the Windows. It Helps a Little.

“Putting up the windows – never mind how geeky some feel that looks – can cut noise exposure,” explained Dr. Michael. [I like the way this guy thinks. He gets it.] “If you have the top down and put up the windows, it [sound level] drops to an average of 84dB A in four of the seven test cars.”

Putting up the wind guard (spoiler in the States) and wearing hear-through ear plugs is also a good idea. A smart move. But there’s another factor to keep in mind.

“Mainly the problem is highway driving,” the study’s lead author stated. “It’s a high speed environment. Back country roads, where the car’s velocity is much lower, doesn’t present as much of a danger.” Makes sense.

So, should you be concerned the next time you hop into your Carrera? Well, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) a noise measuring at 89 dB A (the study’s average reading for 70 mph) is safe up to 3 hours and 10 minutes. Continued exposure over this amount of time has the potential of causing damage. And the higher the dB, the shorter “safe time” you are allowed.

As the study’s authors explain, rolling up the windows provides a barrier to the sound and can lower the noise you are exposed to. If you are driving cross country for more than a few hours, this would be wise move. Anything you can do to put a barrier between you and the sound will help reduce the sound.

The bottom line is this: Enjoy your ragtop. But enjoy it in moderation. Limit your exposure to road and wind noise to a few hours. And slow down. The slower you drive the less noise you create.

Roll up the windows to cut down on the noise if you are going to be driving for more than a few hours. It also keeps your hair in place so you look good when you finally arrive at your destination. Check with your state’s DMV about their rules and regs for wearing ear plugs. In many states earplugs are illegal while driving due to safety concerns - they not only block out noise that damages hearing, they also block out noise that indicates potential danger.

If you do opt for a pair of earplugs and they are legal in your state, go with the hear-through variety. These ear plugs enable you to hear the sounds of potential danger while blocking out the sound of the wind rushing by.

Once again, protecting your hearing is a matter of moderation mixed in with a little common sense.

So enjoy the ride. Put down the top, roll up the windows and rock on down the road.

Convertibles have always been fun. Now they can be safe, too, if you take precautions to protect your hearing.

Fire up your engines and explode into space. Indeed, you were born to be wild. Just be smart about it.

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