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Hitting the road with hearing loss

Contributed by | Friday, July 17th, 2015

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Thinking about traveling by car this summer? Don’t let your hearing loss hold you back.

Studies have shown that driving with hearing loss is not necessarily less safe than driving with normal hearing. In the 1920s, though, several states briefly banned those who were deaf or had hearing loss from getting drivers licenses! A nationwide ban was considered, but fortunately evidence was presented that showed the ban to be not only unnecessary, but discriminatory as well. 

A new study shows drivers with hearing
loss are actually more attentive and 
often, safer drivers than drivers who have
full hearing. 

These days, we know that driving relies on a combination of focus, speed and experience. Notice anything? None of these have anything to do with hearing.

Are you at risk? 

As a matter of fact, a recent study done in Sweden shows drivers with hearing loss pose no greater risk than other drivers, and in fact might be better drivers.

In the study, researchers used a questionnaire, a driving simulator and an observational study in real traffic to compare drivers with hearing loss to those without hearing loss. They found the drivers with hearing loss were, in fact, more cautious and observant. The simulator study showed, among other things, the drivers with hearing loss reduced their speed more than those with normal hearing in difficult traffic or when the driving circumstances became challenging. The study also showed drivers with hearing loss looked in their rear view and side view mirrors and glanced to the side more often than drivers with normal hearing.

One reason for this increased safety in driving might be that deaf drivers or those with hearing loss learn to pay closer attention to visual cues. In a phenomenon known as neural plasticity, the parts of the brain normally devoted to hearing become rewired to accommodate other senses, allowing those senses take over. For example, those who were born deaf have been proven to have better peripheral vision and to process motion; both of these are important for safe driving.

That is not to say that drivers with hearing loss do not have to be more careful, however. Other studies have shown that older adults with hearing loss have more difficulty driving in the presence of distractions, creating more risk. Excessive conversation, loud music or use of cell phones are an everyday reality for most drivers, even those with average hearing, so it stands to reason that drivers with hearing loss should keep distractions to a minimum to ensure safety on the road. With proper precautions, however, drivers with hearing loss have no reason to fear driving. However they should consider using devices specially designed for those drivers with hearing loss, such as:

  • Alert system that use lights to signal sirens or honking: A multi-light panel that can tell different sounds apart and alerts the driver to the particular situation approaching

  • Extra wide rear view mirror

  • Panoramic mirrors to get a wider view of the surrounding environment

  • Personal ALD or FM system

  • Loop system

  • Lapel microphone clipped to passenger's seat belt for clearer communication

Experts recommend these tips for safer driving with hearing loss:

  • Keep up with car maintenance to keep your car in top condition. Any out of the ordinary noises are a signal that something may be wrong with your car, so if you can’t hear them you are at a disadvantage.

  • Keep the music volume low while driving.

  • Make sure your rear view and side view mirrors are adjusted properly.

  • Keep the windows closed and use the air conditioning instead, if possible.

  • Make sure to check the turn signal indicator light on your dashboard to make sure your turn signal hasn’t been left on.

  • Reduce distractions. Any other activities you try to do while driving, like eating or applying lipstick, take your focus off of the road where it belongs.

  • Wear your hearing aid every time you drive.

  • Watch for flashing reflections in any reflective surface (building windows, for example) to know where a siren is coming from.

  • Remember emergency vehicles often come in multiples. After one passes, there is likely to be at least one more, so stay alert until you’re sure they have all passed.

  • Be alert at railroad crossings. Look for flashing lights, and look left and right for approaching trains.

  • Ask passengers to wait to speak to you until you are stopped or at a traffic light, or keep the conversation to a minimum to reduce distraction.

  • Before you drive, ask yourself if you are comfortable doing so. If you are not comfortable, use public transportation or let someone else take the wheel. Drivers who are feeling nervous or stressed tend to make more mistakes.

With proper precautions, those with hearing loss can still enjoy hitting the open highway this summer and seeing where the road takes them. Above all, be alert to any changes in your hearing, and be sure to see a hearing healthcare professional for an evaluation if you feel your hearing might have changed.

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