Study: Formula 1 fans get a huge overdose of noise unless they wear ear protection

SAN FRANCISCO—Formula 1 Grand Prix racing has got a whole lot safer over the past 25 years or so—at least for the drivers. But that’s not the case for the spectators at these noisy events. Unless race-goers wear proper hearing protection, the odds are that their hair cells are dropping like flies with deadly effects on their hearing.

How noisy are these racecars? Robert Traynor has reported at that they can generate up to 145 dB, a level capable of causing permanent hearing loss in a matter of minutes.

But just how much of a threat does the noise pose to the ears of spectators? That’s a question that Craig Dolder, a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin, has researched. He reported his findings on December 6 to the 166th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) held in San Francisco.



Last year when the ASA meeting was held in Montreal, it coincided with Canada’s Formula 1 Grand Prix. Dolder seized the opportunity to take his sound level meter to the race. His purpose was to find out what noise levels race fans are exposed to so they can make an informed decision about how to protect their hearing.

Unlike Nascar races, where the cars race around and around an oval, Formula 1 drivers navigate more winding routes. That means there are some places where cars are slowing down for a hairpin curve and others where they are accelerating to top speed on a straightaway.

To take his measurements, Dolder positioned himself, along with the general admission crowd, at three different places along the race course that were about 25 feet away from the speeding cars. Using the data he collected, he calculated the noise dosage at the three locations and compared it to standards used to protect people’s hearing.

At the loudest point, at the end of a hairpin turn just before a straightaway, Dolder found that someone watching the race from there without wearing hearing protection would get 234% of his daily allowed noise dosage according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards.

Using the standards established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which are far stricter, that same spectator would be exposing his ears to 8585% of the dose considered safe.

At the quietest point, where drivers were slowing down as they entered an S curve, a spectator would get just 53% of his daily noise dosage by OSHA standards.

In his presentation, Dolder also predicted the noise reduction rating of the earmuffs or other hearing protection equipment that fans should wear in order to attend a Formula 1 race without putting their hearing at risk.