Driving with Hearing Loss
Driving is an important part of our independence. It allows us the freedom to do the things that are important for our lifestyle as so anything that risks to threaten it is concerning. Perhaps you’ve wondered if your hearing could effect your driving. Perhaps someone has even accused you of this. Could they be right?
Maybe, but maybe not. That idea, like so many other things in life, depends largely on who you ask.
Two Sides to Every Coin
Up until about 15 years ago, UPS, the private package carrier based in the United States, believed that hearing impaired drivers were less safe behind the wheel than their counterparts with normal hearing. They forbade their employees with hearing loss from driving their fleet of small trucks, that weigh 10,000 pounds or less until a U.S. federal judge ruled that the practice was illegal. (1)
According to the AARP, the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society reports that senior citizens with hearing loss are less able to drive with distractions happening around them than those with normal hearing. They say that even though people suffering from hearing loss may legally drive, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they can drive safely. Now, in the AARP’s defense, they follow that statement by offering advice on how to drive safely with hearing loss, rather than saying that the hearing impaired should give up driving. (2)
On the flip side of this coin, the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) claims that several studies in various countries show that deaf drivers may actually be better at driving than their counterparts with normal hearing. They also claim that no reports, or at least none that they know of, show that deaf drivers are a hazard on the road. (3)
And, rounding things out, a study from the University of Sheffield in the U.K. claims that people with hearing loss have faster reaction times than their counterparts with normal hearing, when something happens in their peripheral vision. This study did not address driving safety, but driving is largely a visual activity. (4)
Also, here in Ontario, the Highway Traffic Act indicates that hearing is only a driving requirement for those holding a Class B, C, E, or F licences, not the typical G licence, and even then some hearing loss is permissible. (5)
So, which is it? Which is the truth? Are hearing impaired drivers safer, more dangerous or about the same as drivers with normal hearing?
Our five senses work together to immerse ourselves in the world. They form our perceptions of our surroundings and, most importantly, alert us to danger. When one of those senses is damaged, ceases to work properly due to age or never worked very well to begin with, the other four senses may pick up the slack. They work harder so that we remain immersed in the world and can tell when danger is about to strike.
People with hearing loss rely on their eyes more than those without. Since their ears are no longer able to pick up certain sounds, their visual perception may compensate, which could explain why people with hearing loss react faster to things in their peripheral vision than people with normal hearing.
In this way, people with hearing loss may actually see more of what’s happening on the road, and their reaction times may be faster. This allows hearing impaired drivers to see the flashing lights of a police car or notice right away when someone in another car is driving in a hazardous fashion, even if they might be missing some of the auditory cues.
Distractions Inside the Car
At the same time, distractions inside the car, especially where understanding speech is involved, may require such intense concentration for someone who’s hearing impaired that the distractions may be detrimental to that person’s driving ability.
If so, then cell phones, even with hands-free Bluetooth options, should be off limits, except for emergencies. GPS devices should be used as visual devices, so they show the driver the directions, rather than aural devices that speak the directions.
On the other hand, if the driver is with someone whose voice is familiar to them, then it’s perfectly fine to have a fun conversation while on the road. If the act of driving becomes strained or stressful, because of the need to focus on what the passenger is saying, then it may be time to either switch drivers or for the hearing-impaired driver to simply focus on the road, rather than the conversation.
Of course, safety is the most important consideration when driving any vehicle, no matter how big or small.
If you have a hearing impairment due to age or an accident, make sure you get your eyes checked, as well. This is vital, because age-induced hearing loss, which is the most common type, or sudden hearing loss can take some time to get used to. If you’ve always heard well, before, then your senses may not have had the time to catch up to your new reality.
Other options exist, as well, to keep you driving and doing it safely. Wide-angle rear-view mirror attachments can expand your view of the road around you. Devices that attach to the dashboard can be your ears and listen for sirens, horns or other noises that you may miss, then light up to visually alert you to the sound. And hearing aid technology continually improves at a lightning pace, offering the most natural hearing experience ever.
If you feel that your hearing may not be as good as it used to be, start a regimen of annual hearing loss screening. Treating a hearing test like a simple, annual, health screening, like a visit to the dentist, will remove any stigma you may feel about hearing loss.
With the state of technology today, hearing loss is not a burden that you suffer through, but something that is easily corrected, so you can live life to the fullest.
(1) CALIFORNIA / Deaf drivers due a chance at UPS jobs, court says / Some may be as safe as rivals with normal hearing, ruling holds
(2) Driving With Hearing Loss?
(3) 31 August 2016: WFD Statement on Deaf People’s Right to Drive a Car or other Vehicles
(4) University of Sheffield, UK Study: Deaf and hearing children: a comparison of peripheral vision development.
(5) HighwayTraffic Act O. Reg. 453/10, s.3.