A third of people over age 65 have some degree of hearing loss — a percentage that doubles among those 75 and older. Yet the average person who notices problems with their hearing waits about seven years before seeking help, and only a fraction of people who could benefit from hearing aids actually use them. That means there's a whole lot of drivers with hearing impairments out on the road.
It's not illegal to drive with hearing loss (though some states have specific vehicle requirements for people who are hearing impaired), but that doesn't make it safe. A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society reported that older adults with hearing loss were less proficient in driving tests when faced with distractions than their peers with no hearing impairments — suggesting that the additional effort needed to hear was making it more challenging to focus on all of the tasks needed to navigate the road.
"Hearing loss can be more mentally fatiguing than people realize,” says Stefanie Wolf, an audiologist with Audiology of Nassau County, Rockville Centre, N.Y. “If you're trying to be a safe driver and it's taking extra attention to hear signals and your surroundings, it can put you and other people on the road at risk."
And you might not even realize the severity of the problem, Wolf says. “Hearing loss usually sneaks up on people very, very slowly, and one doesn't know what one does not hear.” That's why she recommends everyone 55 and older have a baseline hearing evaluation, then regular checkups.
If your hearing is impaired, you'll want to take these steps to be a safer driver:
Work with an audiologist. Many of us know people who have hearing aids they never use because they found them more annoying or distracting than their hearing loss. Hearing-aid technology has improved enormously, but there's still a learning and adaptation curve when you first get the devices, Wolf says. “Without the appropriate follow-up care and procedures, people have very little success with hearing aids. It takes time to learn how to use and fine-tune them. A doctor can help with the proper procedures."
Have your vision checked. When one sense is diminished, the others pick up the slack, and vision is your most important sense behind the wheel, says Bill Van Tassel, AAA manager of Driver Training Programs. “If your hearing is going, make sure your vision is as sharp as possible while you're driving."
Expand your fields of view. Because you're relying more on your eyes, you want to be able to take in as much visual information as possible. A clip-on, wide-angle rearview mirror can help you see more of and process your surroundings. Some states, such as New York, require drivers who report hearing impairment to use a larger full-view rearview mirror.
Reduce the noise. The more auditory distractions you have, the harder it will be to pick up the sounds you need to hear for safe driving. Keep the windows closed and lower the volume on the radio to help you concentrate. If you have hearing aids, you may be able to program them to use directional microphones or use a remote microphone accessory to hear the passengers in your car without needing them to speak loudly.
Minimize distractions. This is important for everyone, regardless of how well they can hear, and it's even more essential if your hearing is diminished. Keep phone use to an absolute minimum. If you must talk to someone while you're behind the wheel, hearing aids with Bluetooth technology that sync to your phone make it easier and safer to take a call.
Make your navigation tool easier to follow. We all rely on GPS navigation these days. If you have Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids, sync them to your device for turn-by-turn directions that are easier to hear. Place the GPS device or phone on a dashboard holder where you can easily see it without looking down, or consider one of the Heads Up Display (HUD) apps that project the directions onto your windshield in your line of sight without obstructing your vision.
Keep an eye out for improved car technology. Car technology is advancing at a whiplash pace, and drivers who have hearing impairments will soon have built-in assistance, Van Tassel says: “Automobile manufacturers are developing technology that will give visual and haptic — such as vibrations in the steering wheel or seat — alerts when emergency vehicles are approaching.” Hyundai Motor Group announced its own Audio-Visual Conversion and Audio-Tactile Conversion technology for hearing impaired drivers earlier this year.