That is what academics from the two Bath universities are investigating in a new research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
Leading the study are Dr Michael Carley, from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bath, and Dr Nigel Holt from the Department of Psychology at Bath Spa University.
With the help of Dr Ian Walker, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, the team will take on-road measurements to find how noise is transmitted from a helmet and how it affects the rider’s hearing and ability to concentrate.
Dr Carley said: “The noise inside the helmet at the legal speed of 70 mph is higher than the legal limit for noise at work – more than enough to cause serious hearing damage.
“The issue isn’t noisy engines or loud exhausts as you may think. The noise is simply from the airflow over the helmet.
“Ear plugs won’t help much either as the noise is transferred into the inner ear from the rider’s bones. This has been known for 20 years yet little research has been done on the noise and its effects.”
The laboratory study will be split into two parts; the first will involve applying low level vibration to people’s heads to examine how the noise is transmitted through the whole system of the helmet including the head.
Dr Carley, who will be directing this first study, said: “We already know that the noise passes to the ear partly through air and partly through the rider’s bones. To reduce hearing damage we must establish which route is more important and a higher priority to hearing protection measures.”
The second part includes playing noise back to participants while they do cognitive tests. Riding a motorcycle requires great attention and concentration; anything that reduces performance may lead to more accidents.
Dr Holt said: “It is known that noise can affect perception and cognition but, so far, nobody has tried to examine how noise in motorcycling affects the performance of riders.”
The project starts next month and will run for a year.
Dr Holt added: “This isn’t about putting people off riding or wearing helmets; it’s about finding ways to reduce this damage so that riders can have a better riding experience.
“We hope the research will provide information which can be used in setting standards for helmets and to help improve helmet and motorcycle design.”