Woman with her head out the window of a car.

It’s a peaceful early morning around 4:45 AM. Most people are still asleep. You practically have the highway to yourself, moving at a leisurely 55 MPH with the windows down…It just seems silly to run the car air conditioner on such a beautiful day. Why would you waste the gas? Yet, could driving with the windows open put your hearing at risk?

Backed By Science

Don’t believe it’s really that loud? British scientists tested everything from a Mazda to an Aston Martin in non-rush hour traffic going 50, 60 and 70 MPH. The found that regardless of speed or model, the driver was exposed to a nearly constant 89 decibels of noise.

Is Driving With the Windows Down Loud Enough to Cause Hearing Loss

Yes, 85 decibels is enough to cause permanent damage over an 8 hour period. If you’re in busy traffic, where you’re consistently being exposed to over 100 decibels, permanent damage occurs within 15 minutes.

What Factors Contribute to the Noise Factor?

Let’s consider the noise sources.

Engine and Vehicle Types

Gas engines work by producing a series of rapid explosions in the cylinders. In about 80% of gas-powered cars engines produce about 85 decibels of sound.

If you have a hybrid, electric or small 4-cylinder engine, your car may be quieter. Ferraris can produce over 100 decibels in first gear.

When you have your windows down, there’s nothing between you and the sound of the engine. In addition, the car vibrates as it moves, producing even more noise.

Wind Resistance

Wind resistance adds to the noise mix. The swoosh and whistling sounds of wind moving across your vehicle can significantly increase the noise level even if you have a quieter car.

Traffic

Every time another vehicle passes you, even on a 4-lane highway, the sound is magnified.

Try this. Ask your passenger to use a sound meter app on their smartphone while you drive to see how loud it is in your car. Sound is always louder on the driver’s side because you’re closest to oncoming traffic, so keep that in mind while tracking decibels.

On the sound meter, they’ll see the sound level spikes each time a vehicle passes. Semis and loud motorcycles are among the worst.

A passing vehicle can expose you momentarily to over 100 decibels of sound.

Radio

If you try to turn your radio up so you can hear it over street sounds, then your radio has to be louder than the street. That means the radio may be at 90-100 decibels.

How to Reduce Hearing Loss Risk While Driving

If you love to drive with the windows down or top off, there are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of hearing loss.

If you’re on a long road trip, take regular breaks and alternate between windows up, windows down. Even if it’s far from an 8-hour trip, it’s a smart preventive measure to give your ears a break.

If you have a convertible, rolling the windows up with the top down is enough get sound below damaging levels.

Get a sound meter app on your smartphone to find out how loud it is in normal traffic. (Never use your phone while driving–ask a passenger to help.)

Keep the windows up in heavy, moving traffic to avoid prolonged exposure to sound over 100 decibels. Remember, 15 minutes is all it takes to damage your ears when the noise is that loud.

Never try to drown out noise with music. It’s much louder than you think. Wearing headphones or earbuds while driving isn’t just dangerous for you, passengers and other drivers. It also amplifies the damage caused by trying to keep out do the noise with your volume dial.

Get your hearing tested. If you’ve been driving with the windows down for most of your life, you’ve been very slowly giving yourself hearing loss. Sometimes it’s so gradual that we either don’t realize it or want to admit it.

It’s better to know where you stand. Talk to a hearing specialist about solutions to improve your hearing.