As drivers, we rely on our vision to navigate, monitor our speed, and avoid hazards. But sight isn’t the only sense we use. When we accidentally drift into someone else’s lane, it’s their emphatic honk that sends us back where we belong. When an emergency vehicle needs to get by, it’s usually their siren that tells us to pull over.
So does that make the road unsafe for hearing-impaired drivers? Not at all!
History of hearing-impaired drivers
Though hearing-impaired drivers have been operating cars legally for years, that wasn’t always the case. In the 1920s, when cars were new and states were creating driving laws, a handful of states banned deaf people from getting a drivers license. There was even talk of a nationwide ban. But thanks to evidence compiled by the National Association for the Deaf, these bans were deemed unnecessary and discriminatory and were later repealed.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t until recently that this population was granted permission to drive commercial vehicles.
In 2006, a San Francisco court ruled that UPS was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act for not allowing people with hearing impairments to drive their smaller delivery trucks. According to the judge, UPS never addressed “whether there are some deaf drivers who are as safe as, or safer than, some or all of the hearing drivers that UPS employs.”
That doesn’t mean UPS is now required to fill a quota, only that they can’t screen out applicants based solely on their hearing ability.
But are hearing-impaired drivers safe?
The 2006 ruling didn’t specifically address the safety records of deaf drivers. But according to a 2008 evidence report conducted by the nonprofit ECRI Institute, there’s no proof that drivers with hearing loss pose more risk than their hearing counterparts. When you consider how factors like focus, speed, and experience — none of which rely on hearing ability — contribute to driver safety, these findings make sense.
While no studies have been done on commercial drivers specifically, the ECRI Institute’s evidence was enough for the Department of Transportation. In 2013, they announced that hearing-impaired drivers could apply for commercial licenses to drive large trucks.
Compensating for hearing loss
Though hearing-impaired drivers may not be able rely on auditory cues, there are a variety of ways they can compensate — like learning to pay closer attention to visual cues. And as it turns out, there’s some science behind this.
According to a study in the Journal of Neuroscience, extra visual acuteness likely goes beyond learned behavior. Because of the brain’s plasticity, if an area that’s mapped to one sense goes unused, it can be rewired to process other senses.
In the case of lost hearing, the brain becomes more sensitive to touch and vision. One of the authors of the study even found that people who are born deaf have better peripheral vision and process motion more keenly.
Along with natural coping strategies, some hearing-impaired drivers rely on devices that use lights to signal sirens or honking. These devices provide multi-light panels to tell different types of sounds apart and alert the driver to the type of situation that’s approaching.
Additionally, some hearing-impaired drivers use panoramic mirrors to get a wider view of what’s going on around them.
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