by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
When my wife (before I ever met her) noticed she was losing her hearing, one of the first questions that worried her was, “Will I still be able to drive?”
Apparently, many people seem to think you need to be able to hear in order to drive. (I think a better criterion is being able to see!)
The surprising truth is that we (people with long-standing hearing losses) are some of the safest drivers around. Thus, it “bugs” us when people keep asking us if we can drive. Some have come up with some pretty pithy answers to the question, “Can you drive since you can’t hear?”
For example, “Judy”, when asked by her boss, “How do you drive not being able to hear?” retorted, “I use my hands. My ears aren’t able to reach the steering wheel!”
“Beth”, a deaf dentist, when asked, “Do you drive a car?” quipped, “Of course I do! It isn’t my ears that turn the steering wheel”
“Patsy” responds to “Can you drive since you can’t hear?” with, “Yes, and I can have sex, too!” (You gotta love their sense of humor.)
When people wonder if I can drive since I can’t hear much, I respond, “I use my eyes when I’m driving. What do you use?”
You see, one of the reasons we are safer drivers than our hearing counterparts is because we have to rely more on our eyes. After all, driving is obviously a visual activity, more than it is an aural experience. Sure we don’t hear horns honking, but when you are visually alert, you have already seen the “problem” looming before some driver sounds their horn. Horn honking today is typically just some impatient driver sounding off.
Some of us choose not to wear our hearing aids while driving. As “Anna” explained, “I would rather drive without my hearing aids because there is no noise distraction, and I can go down the interstate with the windows down. Never had an accident.”
I feel the same way. I have a severe hearing loss, yet I seldom choose to wear my hearing aids while driving. As a result, I hear almost nothing—but I do keep visually alert. Like “Anna,” I’m not distracted by extraneous noises, and also like “Anna,” I have a wonderful driving record.
One of the “problems” people often cite is that we won’t be able to hear emergency vehicle sirens, and generally, that is true—we don’t. But then, many hearing people don’t hear them either. You see, modern cars are so soundproofed, and many people have their car radios blasting—so they can’t hear sirens either—until the emergency vehicle is right on top of them. Furthermore, studies have shown that it is very difficult to hear sirens coming up behind you if you are barreling down the interstate. That’s just how the laws of physics apply in this situation.
I’ve had experience with emergency vehicles from both sides. First, I’ve had a lifetime of watching out for emergency vehicles as a hard of hearing driver, and second, for 10 years, I used to drive both fire trucks and ambulances myself. Thus, I know first hand just how many hearing people fail to hear sirens!
Because I am visually alert, it is the rare emergency vehicle that can ever get close to me without my seeing their flashing lights—even when they are still quite a distance away. Often, I am the first vehicle to pull over—before the hearing drivers are aware an emergency vehicle is approaching.
The most difficult situation with emergency vehicles is at intersections in the city with tall buildings built right out to the sidewalks blocking our lateral view, and with an emergency vehicle approaching from the left or right.
How do I avoid being hit in such situations? Glad you asked. I have several tricks I use. First, I am always watching for flashing reflections in the windows of the buildings on the opposite side of the intersection. Especially at night you will see the red flashes on glass surfaces as an emergency vehicle approaches the intersection and can safely stop in time.
Second, I watch the traffic around me—especially when the vehicle in front hits the brakes, or pulls to the side for no apparent reason. I do the same. I resist the temptation to swerve around him until I know the reason for this strange behavior. This has saved me a number of times.
Third, be aware that emergency vehicles often travel in “packs,” so if a fire truck goes whizzing past, watch out for other fire trucks, police cars and ambulances. Be careful. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking they all will be coming from the same direction as the first fire truck. Some may, but others may be converging and coming from several directions—so remain especially vigilant until you are well away from that area.
In summary, when driving, keep visually alert—use your mirrors—you have three. Make sure you use all of them. Always be aware of what is going on around you—ahead, behind and beside. This is just good defensive driving, and especially critical when you can’t hear. Watch for flashing lights and reflections of flashing lights. Watch what the cars in front and beside you are doing when it is “out of the ordinary” and take appropriate evasive action.
Following these few tips will go a long way towards making you a safe hard of hearing driver too.