Contributed by Debbie Clason, staff writer, Healthy Hearing Last updated 2021-12-29T00:00:00-06:00
Hearing loss is one of the most common health conditions in the United States, especially among older adults. When hearing loss is untreated, it can be a safety issue in many situations, including while driving.
How important is hearing for driving?
Although your sense of sight is undoubtedly the most important when behind the wheel, your sense of hearing helps you detect approaching emergency vehicles, hear the blaring horn of an impatient driver or realize that your turn signals are engaged. It's also critical in helping you determine if something is wrong with your car, like a noisy belt under the hood.
If you have mild hearing loss, it probably doesn't significantly impact your ability to drive; however, it never hurts to be prepared and take extra precautions. If your hearing loss is more severe, there may be certain restrictions you must follow, depending on that laws of the state you live in.
Hearing aids are helpful when driving
It's a very good idea to wear hearing aids if you’ve developed sensorineural hearing loss, which includes age-related hearing loss. Not only can hearing aids amplify the important sounds you hear on the road, they can also keep your auditory system healthy so your brain doesn’t forget how to interpret other sounds in your environment.
Today’s hearing aids are technological marvels, with sensitive microphones designed to better discriminate between speech and background noises.
Yet even with hearing aids, you’ll want to eliminate distractions while you’re driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), distracted driving claimed almost 3,200 lives in 2019. Here are a few tips to keep the distractions at a minimum:
Before you go
Request a "car" setting on your hearing aids. Did you know you can customize your hearing aid settings for different listening situations? For example, your hearing aid provider can adjust the microphone’s direction to help you pick up what the person in the passenger seat (or behind you) is saying.
Maintain your hearing aids. Feedback from hearing aids is a major distraction, regardless of your activity. Visit your hearing care practitioner regularly, at least every six months, for check-ups and cleanings. Tell them if you’re experiencing feedback or other concerns.
Be sure that your hearing aid batteries are fresh (or freshly charged). If your hearing aid batteries are disposable, we recommend that hearing aid wearers always carry a spare set of batteries along when leaving the house. If your batteries begin to signal that they are low while you’re driving, do not attempt to change them while the vehicle is in motion. Instead, pull over to a safe area and change them, or if they're rechargeable, charge them as soon as you can.
Reduce the volume on the car radio. Not only is keeping volume low good for your residual hearing, you’ll also have more mental energy to concentrate on other noises around you, especially those important for your safety. Here’s a tip: Adjust the volume before you set out on the road so you don’t have to fiddle with the controls while the vehicle is moving.
Ask passengers to keep the conversation quiet and to a minimum. While it’s always fun to be part of the conversation, participating in any activity other than driving means your attention isn’t fully focused on the road. If you are having trouble hearing the other people in the car, either as the driver or as the passenger, talk to your hearing care practitioner about technology options that might be available and useful to you.
Keep the car window closed to minimize road noise. Today’s vehicles are built to reduce road noise, which is good news for those with hearing loss. Anytime you can reduce the variety of noises competing for your attention, the better you’ll be able to hear the ones you need to.
Focus on driving, which means everything else—like texting, eating or applying makeup—can wait until you reach your destination. You already know this and have probably said it out loud a time or two to your children or grandchildren. Make this a habit for safety’s sake as well as to model good driving behavior to your young family members.
Put the phone away. We suggest you avoid speaking on the phone entirely while driving to allow you to put all of your focus on driving. However, if you must have a phone conversation, you may want to use your hearing aids’ hands-free Bluetooth option, if available. Talk to your hearing care professional about this.
If you are stopped by law enforcement while driving, you may wish to respectfully inform them right away that you have hearing loss and are wearing hearing aids so that they can more effectively communicate with you.
Rely on visual clues
Once distractions are minimized, you’ll have more capacity to focus on the information you’re ears are collecting along the way. Here’s how your eyes can help you:
Just as you do your hearing, have your eyes examined annually and wear prescription eyewear when you drive. This is important for your safety on the road as well as those who share it with you. As we get older, dual sensory impairment is very common.
Consider investing in a larger rearview mirror, while these don't get rid of blind spots, they may help decrease the need to look over your shoulder. These accessories are available online and range in price from $10-$60. Some states, such as New York, require drivers who wear a hearing aid or can’t pass the hearing test to use a full-view rearview mirror. Check with the Department of Motor Vehicles to see if the same restriction applies in your state.
Look for flashing lights on approaching vehicles and at railroad crossings. In the city, use building windows and other reflective surfaces to warn you of approaching emergency vehicles. Check your rearview mirror frequently (and safely) for vehicles approaching from behind.
Safe driving as you get older
Whether you hear well or have some degree of hearing loss, driving comes with a lot of responsibility. That means anytime you improve your driving skills, you reduce the risk of becoming an accident statistic and help make our roads safer. Reduce distractions, rely on visual clues and, above all, find a hearing clinic near you who can help you hear your best when you’re behind the wheel, as well as when you’re not.
Debbie Clason holds a master's degree from Indiana University. Her impressive client list includes financial institutions, real estate developers, physicians, pharmacists and nonprofit organizations.
Read more about Debbie.