by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
“How do you drive if you can’t hear?” is a question I’ve been asked a number of times. And I normally answer, “I use my eyes when I drive. What do you use?” “Judy”, a hard of hearing lady, responding to this same question, quipped, “I use my hands. My ears aren’t long enough to reach the steering wheel!”
Indeed, when my wife (before I met her) first noticed she was losing her hearing, one of her first worries was, “Will I still be able to drive?” Apparently, many people think you need to be able to hear in order to drive. I think a better criterion is being able to see!
In fact, people with long-standing, severe hearing losses are some of the safest drivers around. One of the reasons for this is that we have to rely almost entirely on our eyes. After all, driving is a visual activity, more than it is an aural experience. Sure, we seldom hear horns honking, but when you are visually alert, you have already seen the problem looming before some driver lays on his horn. Besides, much of the horn honking these days is just impatient drivers sounding off, not genuine traffic warnings, so we aren’t really missing much in this respect.
Shocking as it may seem to hearing people, some of us choose not to wear our hearing aids when we drive. As “Anna” explains, “I would rather drive without my hearing aids because there is no noise distraction. And I’ve never had an accident.”
If you have recently lost much of your hearing, you need to retrain yourself to rely on your eyes, not your ears. Always be aware what is going on in front and behind you—and not just the immediate car in front and behind you either, but as far as you can see in both directions—and know what is going on in the lanes on both sides of you. Use your mirrors—all three of them. When you consistently do this, you will seldom have problems in your everyday driving due to your lack of hearing.
However, there are a few situations where our lack of hearing can get us into trouble if we don’t learn how to properly deal with them. One of these is not hearing emergency vehicle sirens.
It’s surprising, though, how many hearing drivers don’t hear sirens either. This is because modern cars are reasonably soundproof. Also, many people have their car radios blasting, or are busy talking on their cell phones, so they don’t hear sirens until the emergency vehicle is right on top of them. I know this because I used to drive fire trucks and ambulances. 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 such situations.
The trick to driving safely without hearing sirens is to be especially alert for any flashing lights. Emergency vehicles must have their emergency lights on if they are sounding their sirens. That’s the law. And it is the rare emergency vehicle that can get close to me without my seeing its flashing lights. Often, I am the first vehicle to pull over, well before hearing drivers are aware an emergency vehicle is approaching.
The most difficult siren situation for us is at downtown intersections where buildings extend right out to the sidewalks blocking our lateral view, and an emergency vehicle is approaching from the left or right, out of our line of sight.
How do I avoid being hit in such situations? I have several tricks I use. First, I always watch for flashing reflections, typically in the windows of the buildings on the opposite side of the intersection from me, or from any reflective surface in my line of sight. At night it is particularly easy to see these red flashes on glass surfaces as an emergency vehicle approaches the intersection from the left or right.
Second, I watch the traffic around me—especially when the vehicle in front of me suddenly brakes, refuses to move when a light is green, 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 seemingly strange behavior. This has served me well a number of times.
Third, I am aware that emergency vehicles often travel in packs. Thus, if a fire truck goes whizzing past, I watch out for other fire trucks, police cars and ambulances. I know that not all the emergency vehicles 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 I remain especially vigilant until I am well away from that area.
You know that sinking feeling you get when you realize a police officer is pulling you over? This is a stressful situation for anyone, but especially challenging if you are hard of hearing. As we can’t hear the siren, the police may have had to pursue us a bit longer than usual, and that isn’t likely to put the officer in the best of moods.
There is an easy way to avoid this—just obey the traffic laws—don’t speed, don’t run red lights, actually stop at stop signs, signal before changing lanes, slow down in school zones and don’t drive aggressively. When you obey the traffic laws, the chances of ever being pulled over are exceedingly slim. For example, the last time I remember a cop pulling me over was more than 40 years ago.
However, if you are pulled over, the challenge is to understand what the officer says as he approaches your vehicle. This is especially true at night when we can’t see his face to speechread. For example, did the officer just order us to get out of the vehicle or stay in it? We don’t have a clue, and doing the wrong thing could get us manhandled or shot. It does happen.
Fortunately, there is a simple solution for this situation: visor cards that let the officers know we are not responding to their commands because we are deaf or hard of hearing and thus can’t hear them.
Download your own free visor cards (there is a deaf version and a hard of hearing version) and the instructions on how to properly use them. Thousands of people are already using these visor cards.
Another hearing-related problem is that we can’t hear our turn signals clicking, and if they fail to cancel when we change lanes, for example, we may be driving down the road with our turn signals flashing—and risk getting a ticket as a result. Unfortunately for tall people like me, the turn signal indicator lights are typically hidden by the steering wheel. I have to duck my head to see if they are flashing or not. As a result, I have to consciously check that my turn signals have cancelled whenever I use them to avoid this.
Sometimes our lack of hearing can cause us problems even before we hit the road. For example, I may be in a parking lot and think my motor didn’t start, so I try again, and the suddenly-swiveled heads of those near my car let me know that I ground the starter gears—again! To prevent this, I now look at my tachometer before trying to restart my motor. If the tach doesn’t read zero, I keep my hands off the key.
We also run into problems when we can’t hear the warning sounds our cars make—warnings to put our seat belts on, that a door isn’t closed properly, that we left our keys in the ignition and so on. In fact, for a long time, I didn’t even know my car made any warning sounds! Those inaudible (to us) warnings are useless when we realize we just locked our keys in the car. To solve this problem, I always carry a spare key in my pocket.
Furthermore, because there are no visual warnings, I have gotten out of my car and left the headlights on, and never heard my car warning me of this fact. In self-defense, I usually look back at my car as I walk away to be sure the lights are out and the locks are down.
Car manufacturers need to address this issue and build adequate visual warnings for every audible warning they build into their cars!
Another point to remember is that those of us with hearing loss don’t hear the sounds our cars make—motor, tires, etc.—like people with normal hearing do. Thus, we can easily miss hearing the faint clues that tell us something is going bad. As a result, we need to be especially vigilant in having our vehicles serviced regularly so a mechanic with good hearing can spot any problems for us.
No matter how much or little you hear, one of the main keys to safe and problem-free driving is staying visually alert and “seeing” the sounds you can’t hear. When I drive, I “hear” with my eyes. You need to learn to do the same.
This basic article in slightly different format was published in the Spring 2009 edition of Hearing Health magazine, pp. 12-13.