Ask anyone what is the most important of the five senses to safe driving and the answer will almost always be…sight. But even if we don’t often think about it, being a safe driver is dependent on a number of factors and senses, including our ability to hear potential danger and respond accordingly.
We may hear a car approaching before we see it rounding the curve, or an impatient driver passing on the right before we see him speed by us. However, assessing the risk of driving with impaired hearing is not as simple as the degree of hearing loss.
Well-Being spoke to Charles E. Bishop, Au.D. (Doctor of Audiology) with the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Department of Otolaryngology and Communicative Sciences about the issue of hearing and safe driving.
According to Dr. Bishop, it’s not just the degree of hearing loss, but a person’s awareness of their loss and their compensation skills that may have more impact on driving safely. For example, a person with asymmetrical hearing loss, meaning their hearing loss is not the same in both ears, may have trouble hearing the direction of a sound, such as an ambulance siren. If they are not aware of this, big errors in judgment are likely. Also, hearing loss can impact one’s level of concentration while driving.
“A person with some hearing loss who normally is a safe driver when alone in the vehicle, might have problems staying alert to the road when a passenger in the car is talking to them,” explains Dr. Bishop. “The driver may be trying so hard to concentrate on the conversation, that they are distracted from keeping a close eye on the road. This is made even worse if the driver is using their cell phone.”
There is no requirement to have your hearing tested to qualify for a driver’s license. Bishop recommends that anyone, regardless of age, who perceives a loss of hearing should have his or her hearing checked by an audiologist. It is not uncommon for people to experience some hearing loss with age. Since aging can also result in slower reaction times, struggling to hear may increase the risk on the road.
“With the tech savvy ‘Baby Boomer’ population getting older, we have a trifecta of risk,” adds Bishop, “there are potentially millions of aging drivers with some hearing loss and decreasing reaction times, texting and using other devices while driving.”
Dr. Bishop warns, however, that hearing loss alone is not enough to automatically make a person unfit for safe driving.
“There are a number of factors to be considered,” Bishop continues. “Many people who know they have a problem hearing take extra care when driving to compensate. The last thing we want to do is label anyone with hearing loss unfit to drive. It just isn’t that simple.”
Though hearing aids can certainly help one compensate for hearing loss, in the case of a new user, hearing aids can initially be a distraction.
“Just because a person is fitted with hearing aids, this doesn’t automatically fix all of his or her problems with driving. Hearing aids take time to get adjusted to and are only as good as the follow-up care the person receives. The aids must be fitted and set properly, and the person wearing them must have sufficient time of use to fully adjust to the new world of sound in which they find themselves driving. Unless proper follow-up and counseling is provided, a person trying to adjust to new hearing aids can actually be more distracted behind the wheel than before they were wearing the aids.”
Hearing loss aside, there is a more common, yet risky, behavior that can lead to dangerous driving – excessively loud music and/or the use of earphones. According to some research, loud music may decrease a driver’s ability to react to sudden movements and make decisions. A study, by scientists in Canada, found that reaction times may be diminished by up to 20 percent when a person is subjected to a distraction, such as loud music. That is a potentially fatal delay for a motorist driving at even moderate speeds. This finding has prompted concern among driving organizations that people who drive with music booming from their powerful in-car sound systems or while wearing earphones could be causing an increasing number of accidents.
Without the benefit of your acute senses of both sight and hearing, you may not be fully equipped for driving safely. Split second reaction times can mean the difference between having or avoiding an accident. Taking seriously your physical and mental fitness for the road means taking the precautions of checking out any problems you have seeing or hearing and limiting the distraction that comes with cell phone use and listening to loud music.(It is recommended that the safest volume while driving is a conversational level.) Remember, your senses are the first alert to danger on the road, and can make the difference between driving safety and disaster.
Charles E. Bishop, Au.D., is an Associate Professor, University of Mississippi Medical Center and Participating Faculty member in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomical Sciences. He received his MA in Audiology from the University of North Texas, and his Au.D. from Salus University, Osborne School of Audiology.