Don’t leave home without them.

Noise is annoying. (Indeed, I’m pretty sure the words are from the same root.) The physiologists tell us that noise is a stressor, and one to which only partial tolerance develops: even people who subjectively don’t mind noises their conscious minds have grown used to still show signs of stress in noisy surroundings.

Unfortunately, noise has never been treated as the serious environmental problem it is, especially in big cities. The Carter-era EPA made a head-fake in that direction, but the election of St. Ronald put an end to such liberal nonsense.

Noise is part of the reason long-distance travel, whether by car or by airplane, is so tiring. On top of the sitting in confined spaces, there’s the constant noise of the engines or the freeway. I have a remarkably quiet car, as cars go, but at 70 mph lots of noise still gets through.

Fortunately, for about four bucks any big drugstore will sell you ten pairs of 30-decibel earplugs. Since each bel represents an order of magnitude chane in the amount of energy reaching your eardrums, which is roughly a factor-of-three change in the perceived sound level, 30db means a three-order-of-magnitude energy reduction and almost an order of magitude reduction in perceived sound level.

For the past three years or so, I’ve made it a rule never to travel without a pair of earplugs, and the difference has been astonishing. I’m more comfortable during the trip, and much less tired and cranky when it’s done. I can still understand speech and hear music: indeed, I’ve found that I can hear the soundtrack of the airplane movie more clearly with the earplugs in place. (I have yet to try the 33 db earplugs. That might turn out to be too much.)

I don’t know anyone else who uses this approach, and I’ve never seen anyone else putting earplugs in on an airplane. Airlines don’t offer them to passengers. More surprisingly, perhaps, hospitals don’t offer them to patients. (If they did, there would be less incentive to pay the outrageous surcharge for a private room. Calling a shared hospital room with two television sets, either of them with headphones, “semi-private” is like calling a bed of nails “semi-comfortable.” But that’s another rant.)

Earplugs also come in handy in hotel rooms with thin walls, and on Saturday night if your neighbors share the widespread belief that the fun level is directly proportional to the noise level.

Your mileage may vary, but for four bucks I think it’s worth a shot. Try it on your next airplane trip and see if it works for you. And let me know, one way or the other.

Update Yes, I’d heard about the Bose noise-cancelling headphones, but $300 is a lot more than $4, and as I understand it (never having tried them) the Bose headphones are designed to keep you from hearing what’s going on around you, which could be inconvenient or even unsafe. Earplugs, by contrast, reduce the volume without eliminating the signal.

(Original post corrected to incorporate the correct meaning of “decibel.” Thanks to Arcane Gazebo for the correction.)

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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