Driving, The Hard of Hearing Way

Being pulled over by the police has always been one of my secret dreads. Not because I’m hard of hearing, or carry illegal stuff in the trunk, but because I don’t want a policeman to be mad at me.

Can’t help it; it’s the way I was raised, to respect the law. Little baby boomers playing in the streets would wave at the policemen driving by. (“Wave, Gael, wave! You never know when you’ll need him to save you!’)

The longterm effect has  been the fear that, on being pulled  over, I’ll burst into tears if the cop so much as frowns at me. And as my hearing loss deepened, so did my reason to worry. What if I couldn’t understand why I had been pulled over and was getting the officer’s hairy eyeball? The situation is stuffed with potential communication barriers:

  • I don’t hear well when I’m nervous.
  • When a cop looks through the window, the light is behind his or her head and lips become unreadable.
  • A flashlight might be in my eyes, making anything unreadable.
  • What if the cop had an accent – thin, angry lips – a lisp?

I’m breaking into a sweat just writing this!

The inevitable happened. I was pulled over  in Arp, Texas, of all places.  I was with my friend Rose Minette, the Texas government’s hard of hearing specialist, driving towards a rural town to deliver a hearing loss workshop the next day. I was behind the wheel, it was darkish, and oncoming cars were flashing lights at us.

“Rose, do you know where the high beam light switch is?”

“Honey, I don’t even know what that is.”

Blue and red flashing lights suddenly filled my rear view mirrors and I pulled over. A guy wearing the biggest Smokey the Bear hat I’d ever seen approached my window, which I managed to roll down with two clammy hands and a thumping heart.  But I wasn’t crying, yet.

“Good evening, ma’am. Y’all have your hah beams on, and people have been flashin’ you.”

“Yes, officer, hi.  Uh, we both have hearing loss, so could you shine some of that light on your face, too? And then repeat what you said?  Please?”

When he did, he was smiling! So I wasn’t crying!

“Thank you, officer.  Now, the thing is, we don’t actually know how to turn off the high beams in this rental car.”

He reached in, fixed it and asked if there was anything else he could do for us, were we OK, did we need directions? A lifetime of cop-worry down the drain – partly because I had told him we were hard of hearing, and partly because I had waved at his kin when I was little.

For similar unplanned police conversations, consider a visor information card that identifies both hearing loss and communication strategies. The key point is to immediately self-identify as being hard of hearing or deaf, because police, like most people, do not immediately recognize us as such, and may misconstrue and mishandle our slowness to answer, our faces of panic and the fumbling with hearing aids.    (While many local police departments have received sensitivity sessions, all police and other service organizations should have policies that train staff to recognize the signs of hearing loss and how to communicate effectively.)

Driving with hearing loss poses a few other concerns, not only for the hard of hearing driver, but for her passengers, husband, son, and all other drivers on the road. Consider the un-turned-off turn signal, the unheard ambulance coming out of nowhere, and overly-heard noise inside and outside the car.

The car is my favorite place for listening to music. The acoustics are better in the contained space, and when I’m driving, my good ear is next to the window, which bounces the sound into my waiting pinna. Some cars are noisier than others, such as my current Malibu, which could take a lesson in ‘quiet’ from my former Volvo.  Because noise level increases with car speed, try driving slowly to minimize the noise, although it may increase driver irritation in the cars behind you. The high-pitched hiss of rain is also hell on car conversation. At high speeds on the highway, the rain sounds like 25 lbs. of bacon frying, or the loud steam-scream of a cappuccino maker.

Drivers with hearing loss need to be aware that loud music within the car, and loud noise from without, can mask important sounds like a warning honk – or your spouse saying, “Turn left, NOW!” Like most people with hearing loss, I have to be on constant visual alert for problems, and when I do hear a horn, I assume for a heart-stopping moment that the honk is for me.

If the turn signal keeps clicking long after I’ve changed lanes, my passengers quickly point it out.  If I’m alone, the car starts screaming at me within a couple of minutes.  It has, in fact, a fine selection of alerts, including a “you’re-almost-out-of-gas” signal and one that tells me “your-door’s-ajar-and-you’re-going-to-fall-out“.

Seating arrangements are very important. I always sit in the front; this is non-negotiable. If forced to ride in the back, I am not happy. I don’t buy the excuse that the men are “so tall and need the extra leg room”. Well, hello! I am “so hard of hearing and need to see the lips”.

A single passenger must sit so that I can read lips without straining,  and with two or more back-seaters, I pick whose lips I want to read.  Ignoring all passengers completely worked especially well with a car full of smelly 10 year-old hockey players. If they’d won the game, they screamed. If they’d lost the game, they screamed – putting my hearing aids into compression. The only thing was that screaming hockey nuts aren’t worth trying to speechread.

I like driving.  Traveling out of the city for a few hours, I’m inspired by music and the pleasure of just going somewhere and being alone for a little while.  I think about hearing loss, imagine conversations, and create monologues, workshops and blogs in my mind….while keeping one eye on the road and the other on the rear view mirror.

About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for HearingHealthMatters.org, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

17 Comments

  1. I truly can relate to Gael’s experience as a very hard of hearing individual. I too worry all the time when driving but I think it makes me a better driver. I struggle to hear my passenger and must ask him to repeat often. Driving requires so much of my attention that I’m not able to focus as much on lip reading passengers. Thanks for sharing, Gael.

  2. Hi Gael

    Another terrific article. Have you ever considered an Fm system? They are not just for school anymore. They canbe used in a multitude of settings, one of which is the car. I find it helpful, especially when I’m driving. Have to keep those eyes on the road! Little ones can be difficult to understand in the best of listening situations, let alone the car. With them buckled in the back in the car seat in the back, we could easily have a conversation. They think it’s like being on the radio ( I tell them it’s my own private radio station). My one niece, when she was little would have a blast singing me songs and telling me jokes.

  3. Hi Gael,

    We get lots of folks asking us how they can hear better in the car. Have you ever considered putting a small loop system in your car for situations like this? This is a good solution not only for situations where you’re getting pulled over, but also just for hearing better in the car in general.

    There are small loop systems that come with a pad you can put on or under your car seat and then power it through your cigarette lighter.

    Unfortunately I’m not in Rhode Island this week, but if you’re going to be at HLAA you should stop by the Harris Communications booth and ask Dave or Kassy to help you with this!

  4. Thanks for this Gael – and Bill for the link to visor cards.
    There is or was, a SIREN alert system available (for a price) for cars. I contacted the company but never did follow up with a purchase.
    Wonder how many HH drivers have had this experience: Afraid of not hearing an ambulance or fire truck siren until too late I usually take my cue from the car I’m following when it suddenly pulls off to the side. It’s a tad awkward though coming to a stop behind said car only to watch passengers (or one with the dog) get out of the car for various reasons. Meanwhile traffic is zooming by.

  5. I love my GPS ( name of “Mrytle Lou). She is the passenger i hear clearly when driving and need directions. Have used all rearview , backview and any view mirrors in the car religiously so am aware at alltimes of traffic surrounding me and keeping my eyes busy on the roadway . Makes me stay quite alert and most importantly on the days I know I SHOULD NOT DRIVE due to the Menieres.. I just don’t. Miss many activities I had planned but also get another night at some places I visit and if its the children or grandchildren… or NYC thats OK !!!! ( NO, its not, sayeth JIm.. discount the NYC one.. its too expensive ! Unless you find an old college friend in The Big Apple ! OK, I admit not much fun to spend that extra night and only just stay inside a room somewhere but better than making me a danger on the highways ! And yes, I have often thought about what I would do if pulled over and the policemen had an involved unfamilar accent… Never” heard ” of this card.. Probably cause i don’t drive to the support group meetings or get to the conventions, etc anymore. They are such a source of info !!! But I have found this passion that lets me stay home in a better mood when I have to forego the social activities that I love ! At age 81 just at Sketch Club this am on a beautiful horse farm. Hugs Denise !

  6. I’m totally deaf in my right ear, wear aids in both ears. If I have a hearing passenger with me, I use my pocket talker so they can converse with me and I can hear them. I also tell them they’re responsible for hearing any sirens and such! I have one of the cards that Cathy Z mentioned and it’s secured in my drivers side visor. Haven’t had to use it, yet! As for rolling stops, I make sure I stop, then do a 2 second count before I start moving again. If people behind me don’t like it, that’s okay – they can be the ones to get a ticket!

  7. A terrific post. This is such an important topic I would love to see this expanded in the future! Like a three part series or something! Thanks for writing as always!

  8. Gael! Thanks for this timely blog. Hear Fayette just designed laminated visor cards for hearing loss, and they are a big hit. Ours is politically sensitive and just states: Driver is unable to hear in noisy environments. We have paramedic/emergency aids on the back that can help if a person is injured.
    If we are pulled over, we have less nervousness about the hearing problem at least. I guess we’ll just have to face the music if we have been speeding–not that I do that!
    As usual, I loved this blog.

    1. Cathy, could you email me with the visor card? It sounds sweet and to the point. Some visor cards are very ‘busy’. Thanks!

  9. oh this is great, you make me laugh. My husband hates riding with me because I like the music loud. He is forever turning it down and I’m turning it up. I just can’t drive in silence because of the “other” noises you mentioned. I got a card to put on my visor from the deaf and hard of hearing division here in my office that says I am deaf or hard of hearing. I have been pulled over and I just pointed it out to the officer and he was made sure he was in a position where I could see his face and talked clear. He was very polite. He tried to tell me that I did a rolling stop and I said “oh really? I’m sure I came to a complete stop sir”. I told him I hadn’t had a ticket in over 25 years. As he proceeded to check out my drivers license, insurance, and registration, he walked back and said “well today is your lucky day, you still don’t have any tickets, but just make sure you come to a complete stop at the stop signs”. I gave a huge sigh and said “yes sir, I will do that”. He then followed me all the way home. Talk about being nervous.

  10. Here in the UK we have cards provided by RNID (now remaned Action on Hearing Loss) and I keep one tucked into my windscreen visor band ready to show when needed.
    Its really handy if you want to park briefly while sitting in the driver’s seat waiting to pick up a passenger – a traffic warden tapped on my window to say I couldn’t park on the yellow line so I showed him the card which explained my hearing loss. The card also suggests writing things down for me and when the traffic warden saw that he gave up, smiled and said something like ” ok just five minutes then!”. Which was just long enough for my wife to appear with the shopping!

  11. I sooo love getting your blogs. You remind me to laugh about all the stresses that accompany living with a hearing loss.

  12. Gael – Oh, the joys of highway driving with a hearing loss…

    Could it be any more stressful attempting to lip read passengers while flying down the interstate at 70 miles per hour? Never mind having the radio on. I’ve got my personal singers in the backseat, ages 7 and 4. And watch out for backing up a car in a crowded parking lot while lip reading the 11-year-old in the front seat. My mini-van has a huge rear dent from this attempted stunt. My side passenger door has a scrape mark, compliments of me lip reading while trying to open the mailbox from a car window. And don’t forget the huge scratch on the same car door from attempting to chat with my passenger husband while steering the wheel at 65 miles an hour on a narrow-line highway. Have these dents, scrapes, and scratches been fixed? Nope. They are my Lipreading Mom battle scars.

    Yes, Gael. Driving with a hearing loss can sometimes be unnerving.

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