It’s safe to say that nearly every licensed driver in the US has traumatic memories of learning to drive at the tender age of 16, with their parent in the passenger seat sweating and nervously clutching the e-brake.
The point? Driving is dangerous. And many people assume that it would be even more dangerous for deaf people. After all, hearing is an important part of our overall awareness. If you can’t hear, can you safely drive a car?
You may be surprised to learn that in the US, as well as in most other countries worldwide, deaf people are 100% legally allowed to drive.
Why It’s so Important
What’s the big deal though? Deaf people make up only about 3.6% of the US population.
If there’s even a chance that they could endanger the lives of others on the road, shouldn’t they be prevented from driving?
First of all, 3.6% sounds small—but when you consider the fact that the US has around 332 million people, “small” grows to about 12 million individuals!
Unless you live in a big city like New York or Chicago, you simply need a vehicle to get around. Just consider how often you use your car! Just like you, each one of those 12 million deaf people is a person who needs to go to work, run errands, and live their life.
How is it Safe?
As mentioned earlier, hearing is a big part of our sensory awareness. For most of us, going just one day without our sense of hearing is likely to lead to disorientation and some potentially embarrassing scenarios. So how on earth can deaf people safely drive 60 mph on the highway?
Believe it or not, hearing doesn’t play as important a role in driving as you may think. Generally speaking, eyes are far and above the most important tool for driver safety.
Think about how often you drive while listening to an audiobook, bumping loud music, or talking on the phone with your AirPods in. It’s safe to say that these activities significantly reduce your hearing ability while driving. And yet, unless you’re distracted by the content of what you’re listening to, these activities don’t significantly (if at all) increase your chances of getting into an accident.
That said, there are some outlier scenarios in which the ability to hear certain indicators is essential. Examples include horns, screaming pedestrians, or sirens.
That’s where devices come in. Engineers have devised some ingenious methods for allowing deaf drivers to become aware of important sounds. There are two main types of hearing devices for deaf drivers: audio-visual converters and audio-tactile converters.
As the name implies, these devices turn sounds into visual signals. Usually, these devices come in the form of a panel that lights up with a different indicator depending on what sound is detected.
Again, the name makes it pretty obvious: these devices turn sounds into a signals that can be felt by the body—namely, vibrations. Usually these devices vibrate the steering wheel or the seat, making the driver instantly aware of a potentially dangerous situation.
Finally, nearly all deaf drivers utilize simple technology, like wide-view panoramic mirrors that allow them to see almost entirely around and behind their vehicle.
Are There Any Restrictions for Deaf Drivers?
Depending on the severity of hearing loss, the DMV will choose whether to place additional restrictions on a deaf driver’s license. There are two main restrictions that can apply here.
If a driver’s hearing loss can be significantly improved by the use of a hearing aid, the DMV may require them to always wear a hearing aid while operating a vehicle. In this case, if the driver is caught not wearing one, they could be in legal trouble.
In the same way, if the almighty DMV deems it necessary, the driver may be restricted from operating regular cars and given a license that only allows the operation of vehicles with full-view panoramic mirrors. Generally speaking, this is always a requirement; it’s very rare that a deaf driver is allowed to operate a vehicle without special mirrors.
Thus far, we’ve been discussing deaf drivers in the United States. Here, it’s legal for deaf people to drive in all 50 states. For drivers from different countries, it’s not always so easy.
There are currently 26 countries in which it is illegal for deaf people to drive. These countries are scattered throughout Central and South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia.
Deaf drivers today are generally allowed to operate trucks and buses right along with hearing drivers! That said, it wasn’t possible until 2013, when the Department of Transportation finally caved in to the pressure of the National Association of the Deaf.
Getting a Driver’s License as a Deaf Person
In general, the process for obtaining a driver’s license is the same whether a driver is deaf or not. In most states, this involves getting a learner’s permit first, practicing driving with parents, and then passing the written test and driving test to receive the license.
The only difference is that, for people who are deaf or have significant hearing loss, they must report it to the DMV upon applying for the license. The DMV will then decide whether or not to place restrictions on the license.
Some states also require additional documentation. New Jersey, for example, requires deaf or hearing-impaired drivers to submit the standard application materials along with an official doctor’s notice explaining the hearing condition.
Overall, deaf drivers today face very little obstacles when it comes to operating motor vehicles. With attentive visual awareness and special audio-transforming devices, deaf people can operate vehicles arguably just as well as everyone else.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can deaf people drive in the US?
Deaf people are legally allowed to drive in all 50 US states, though they may be beholden to special requirements, such as wearing hearing aids and installing full-view mirrors.
How do deaf people drive if they can’t hear?
Driving is a largely visual endeavor, with the ears playing a minimal (though sometimes important) role. Deaf drivers utilize special audio-transforming devices in order to make up for their inability to hear.
How do deaf drivers hear sirens?
Deaf drivers “hear” sirens using special audio-visual or audio-tactile conversion devices. These devices detect the sound of a siren and convert it into either a visual indicator on a dashboard panel or a vibration felt through the seat or steering wheel.
Can a deaf person get a CDL?
Yes, they can. That’s assuming they pass the DOT physical exam, written tests (on the computer) to get a permit, and road test, deaf people can definitely get a commercial driver’s license. There are approximately 975 truckers according to Deaf Truckers United.
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