Target Zero: Driving with earplugs


In his latest Road Rules article, Doug Dahl, Target Zero manager - communications lead for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, addressed whether it is legal and safe for people to wear earplugs while driving.

Dahl ultimately concluded the question did not have a “perfect answer.” 

“It’s a trade-off between long-term hearing loss and immediate driving safety,” Dahl stated in his July 13 Road Rules article. 

Dahl added that people can be at greater risk of hearing loss if they’re exposed to more than 85 decibels for a certain period of time. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has set some limits for noise exposure to protect workers.

“You’ve reached your daily allowance of noise if you’re exposed to 85 decibels for eight hours,” according to Dahl’s article. “And for each three-decibel increase in volume, your exposure time should be cut in half. Go beyond those limits and you’re risking hearing damage.”

Washington law requires employees exposed to 85 decibels and louder to wear ear protection. 

Dahl added that a normal conversation sits around 60 decibels, whereas a blender could reach 90 decibels. Driving with the windows down or in a convertible can peak at around 85 to 90 decibels, which can lead to hearing loss later in life. 

“Wearing earplugs would help with excessive wind noise, but is that legal? And even if it’s legal, is it a good idea,” Dahl’s article asked. “There are several states where it’s clearly illegal to wear earplugs while driving, but I can’t find any prohibition in Washington.”

Washington law prohibits the use of headsets or earphones that are capable of playing audio and/or muffle other sounds while driving. Dahl added the law does not mention the use of earplugs. 

Wearing earplugs can be deemed a compromise, though. People would be protecting their hearing but also give up the ability to fully hear sounds that can alert drivers to a hazard, Dahl added. A counter to that would be that drivers with hearing impairments have similar driving records to those without. Drivers without hearing impairments have not honed their other senses to offset a lack of hearing, however, Dahl said. The article stated that a study in 2010 found that adults who are deaf have better peripheral vision compared to those without a loss of hearing. 

“If you’re going to wear hearing protection, follow the wisdom of motorcycle riders,” Dahl stated.  “For them, hearing damage is a real concern. Many wear earplugs specially designed to selectively filter wind noise while still allowing them to hear sirens, horns and even conversations. You don’t need to block out sounds entirely, just minimize the ones that are potentially harmful.”

Dahl added that if drivers choose to protect their hearing to focus on long-term effects, the near-term impact could result in a serious crash due to a missed audible warning while on the road. 

“Having said all that, we don’t have an epidemic of earplug-involved crashes,” Dahl stated in his article. “If I were faced with the option of merging onto a highway full of earplugged drivers or a highway full of impaired, distracted or speeding drivers, the choice would be easy. Fortunately, high-risk drivers are a minority, but those risky behaviors have an outsized impact. Being thoughtful about our driving choices goes a long way to increased safety for all road users.”