Driving with Hearing Loss

When you have hearing loss, driving can require more attention and care to stay safe. Markus Bernhard/Getty Images

 Driving is something that we often take for granted. Once you learn how to drive, certain skills seem to go on “auto-pilot”. In reality, driving is a very complex process filled with procedures, use of technology, and divided attention in order to remain safe. Drivers need to be aware visually of signs, other cars, and changes in the road. They also need to remain vigilant regarding emergency sirens, the honk of another car, indicator sounds from the car, and any strange noises that may signal a mechanical problem.

What Happens During Driving When a Person Can’t Hear Well?

When a driver has hearing loss they must use more of their cognitive attention to focus on hearing those important auditory cues. This process is called “cognitive load”. Quite simply, there is only so much capacity for the brain to attend to all the information coming in. When someone has hearing loss and has to pay more attention to detecting and processing sounds there is less capacity left to attend to other tasks.

Suggestions for Drivers with Hearing Loss

  1. Always wear your hearing aids when driving. If you had vision loss you wouldn’t drive without your glasses, so why would you drive without your hearing aids? It is simply a matter of safety.
  2. Decrease as many distractions in the car as possible. This means turning the radio down or off, not using your cell phone, keeping the conversation in the car to a minimum, and keeping the windows up to reduce wind noise. Texting while driving should be avoided for any driver, not just those with hearing loss. Navigation systems can also be distracting; if at all possible, learn the directions and try not to rely on GPS.
  1. Consider an extended rear view mirror. These mirrors are available online and at most auto part stores. They install easily over the existing rear view mirror. Using this type of mirror allows for 180 degrees of visibility where a standard rearview mirror generally has a 52-degree field of view. Many police, professional race car drivers, and municipal crews use these mirrors to reduce blind spots and prevent accidents. Imagine this scenario: you are changing lanes and don’t see the oncoming car in your blind spot. The other car honks. If you hear the honk, you immediately pull back into your lane and avoid an accident. If you don’t hear the honk, you continue to change lanes and may be involved in a collision. By using an extended rear view mirror to eliminate the blind spot you are visually able to determine when it is safe to change lanes. There are also new technologies available where the car can detect when there is something in the blind spot. 
  1. Take your car for regular maintenance. While regular maintenance can’t prevent every problem, it is a smart idea to stay on top of it. If you have hearing loss, especially high frequency hearing loss, you may not hear the little squeals, squeaks, hisses, and clicking noises that can be an early warning of a problem. It’s always best to take care of little problems before they become big problems and leave you stranded or cost more to repair.

Sources:

Hickson L, Wood J, Chaparro A, Lacherez L, Marszalek R. Hearing Impairment Affects Older People's Ability to Drive in the Presence of Distracters. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2010;58(6):1097–1103

Martini A, Castiglione A, Bovo R, Vallesi A, Gabelli C. Aging, cognitive load, dementia and hearing loss. Audiol Neurootol. 2014;19 Suppl 1:2-5. doi: 10.1159/000371593. Epub 2015 Feb 20

Are You Listening to Your Car? Sixteen Noises You need to be Concerned About—And Two You Don’t! (2009). Vehicle MD. Retrieved February 25, 2016 from http://www.vehiclemd.com/are-you-listening-to-your-car-sixteen-noises-you-need-to-be-concerned-about-and-two-you-dont/

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