Automotive Commentary by Paul VanValkenburgh

Editorial columns previously published in small circulation magazines.
I'm undecided whether to change this page every few weeks, or make this page an index,
and just keep adding more editorials. I'll wait and see what your response is.
There are a number of titles I want to put up here eventually, including:

.............updated 26 Feb 1996


Call me paranoid if you will. I have a box of them on my dresser. I keep a box in my car. I wouldn't go to a bar without them. When you hear my story you'll know why.

I lost one at the worst possible time. It was the straightaway at Mid-Ohio, in the rain, just as Parnelli Jones passed me in his Trans-Am Mustang at about 8000 rpm. When you have your helmet on and an ear plug falls out, there isn't much you can do about it. His right exhaust was about five feet from my left ear, and the pain was so great that I reactively put my hand up to my helmet -- for all the good that did.

After the race, my ears rang for the usual couple of days, and then I forgot about it. A couple of years later I had an extensive hearing test as part of a research project, and I looked pretty good, except for a slight 20-decibel loss at about 6000 Hertz in my left ear. OK, I can live with that. But on November 18, 1988, I realized my ears had been ringing for more than a few days -- and it hasn't stopped since.

Try to imagine this. Surely at some time in your life you've been annoyed by noisy neighbors while you were trying to sleep. Eventually you dealt with it in some way or another. At the very worst, you could move. But what if it was someone who had a high-pitched alarm that never shut off and they lived upstairs in your head where you could never evict them? Some people find it maddening, or it can lead to almost suicidal depression.

When the ringing never stops, it's called tinnitus, and it's more common than you would think --unless you already have it. It's estimated that two to four percent of the population is affected to some degree, including Al Unser, who has spoken out for better protection. In 1988 he made a TV documentary to help make everyone, not just race drivers, aware of the consequences.

The ringing frequency is usually associated with the location of hearing loss. No one has explained why -- at least not prior to the book I just wrote on the neurological basis of tinnitus and the possibility of future cures. Tinnitus -- New Hope for a Cure My studies turned up ten tinnitus-related revelations (doesn't that have a nice ring to it?) that weren't commonly known even by specialists, and which may lead to new research on cures when I present it at an upcoming medical convention. (Neuroscience has more growth potential than race car engineering.) In fact, my instrumented tests indicate that even ordinary passenger cars may trigger some ringing.

Just because you're a wild and crazy race fan doesn't mean you have to be foolish. You wear seat belts don't you? You wear eye protection when grinding or motorcycling. You probably don't even smoke. You may have even used a condom at some point in your life.

People who think ear plugs are too inconvenient and reduce their sensitivity probably haven't tried the expanding foam type. They cost less than 50 cents a pair, are reusable for days, are almost unnoticeable, and reduce noise by about 30 decibels (about the same as ear cups), and you can still hear most conversations. I make it a point to always have a pair in my shirt pocket. You can also wear both plugs and cups together for really extreme cases. And at that level of sound insult, you can still get the pleasure of sound pulses through the rest of your body.

Natural consequences are the most memorable and most powerful lessons in life. Unfortunately some of the most critical consequences take so long that it's too late to recover. "Don't smoke." "Get a college degree." "Floss your teeth." "Safe sex." "Eat your vegetables." Maybe if you're lucky or real bright you can relate to someone close to you who learned these lessons the hard way.

Or you can leave it up to "big brother." The federal government has established standards for how long you can be exposed to different noise levels on the job without likely hearing damage. Some representative figures are: not more than 90 decibels for an eight hour day, 105 decibels for an hour, and 130 decibels for less than 2 minutes. But that's what they can force on your employer. You are still free to go out and destroy your ears for the fun of it.

Let's look at drag racing for example. Maybe it's the worst case -- maybe not. It all depends on where you stand. I recently took a sound level meter to a pro drag race, and it substantiated my fears. It had a maximum scale of 130 decibels, and it peaked out before I got within 50 feet of the cars. Of all the spectators lining the fence at that distance, not one in ten had ear protection. Workers up close to the line could be subject to instant hearing loss, where the pressure blast from those pipes is enough to knock you down.

I've stood right next to a reputed 3,000 horsepower top fuel dragster as it left the line. You could get the same effect by lying on the ground under a sheet of plywood, while someone got on it and pounded away with a jackhammer. Still, for all the amplitude, this is relatively low frequency noise. Higher frequencies tend to be harder on your ears, say a 700 horsepower F1 engine with 1.5 times the cylinders at twice the rpm. Then take a whole pack of these engines and put them together on the starting grid. On the other hand, turbochargers tend to take a lot of that noise energy and feed it back into the engine, to everyones benefit.

Bars and nightclubs may hit even closer to where you live. I tried to take some readings at places where I'd gotten some really BIG vibes, but when the managers saw me standing around with a sound level meter they firmly suggested that I do my research outside. I can say there is a lot of variation, depending on the night, the song, the amplifiers, and how close you are. To their credit, at least one place had sound warning signs and earplugs available at the door.

Regulatory agencies aren't very popular, but it wouldn't bother me very much to see the EPA require sound level warnings in some places, like the cancer warnings on cigarette packs and the birth defect warnings wherever alcohol is served.

Don't think that just because you came home with your ears ringing, but it went away and your hearing seemed OK, that it didn't hurt. Hearing damage appears to be cumulative, and well below the level of pain. As a rule of thumb, if you have to shout to hold a conversation, you are probably hurting your ears. Did I hear a collective "Ooops" out there?

Remember that well-worn punch line, "I'll just do it until I need glasses." Don't figure that "I'll just listen to it until I need a hearing aid." Hearing aids don't stop the ringing.

Listen, I know from personal experience what it's like to have the permanent annoyance of unstoppable noise. I'll be damned if I'll let it happen to my kids -- and I'd rather not let it happen to you. Listen to what I'm saying, while you still can. Listen.

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