Yes—the deaf (and those with hearing loss) are allowed to drive and do so as safely as hearing drivers

Over the course of my legal career I had two cases involving deaf drivers. I represented a deaf driver many years ago and was involved in another case where the defendant driver was deaf. So I knew that the deaf, like anyone else, could get driver’s licenses. But apparently there is still wide-spread ignorance, and unfortunately sometimes prejudice, when it comes to driving and the deaf.

On November 9th I did a distracted driving presentation at the Delaware School for the Deaf. It was the second presentation I have given at a school for the deaf.

In preparation for the presentation I learned the following:

  • There is no proof that the deaf, or individuals with hearing loss  are involved in more crashes than those who can hear
  • Studies have shown that the deaf, after about age 15, have much better peripheral vision that those who can hear, about 20% better

Having more expansive peripheral vision like the deaf certainly seems to be a plus for drivers. Some wonder if the inability to hear emergency sirens or other motorists honking horns puts deaf drivers at a disadvantage but apparently that does not lead to an increase in crashes or  make the deaf less safe than hearing drivers. There are now devices available that can be used in r cars that react to the frequency of sirens and which emit visual warnings of approaching emergency vehicles to assist deaf drivers and those with hearing loss.

Most of us take for granted the ability to obtain a driver’s license and drive for personal reasons, or for employment.  It would be hard to imagine how limiting it would be if we could not drive and drive pretty much anytime we wanted and for any purpose. As recently as the 1920’s some states did not allow the deaf to get driver’s licenses and today there are still a number of countries around the world where the deaf are not permitted to drive. I found a blog site for police officers and to my astonishment some of the police officers did not know that the deaf were permitted to drive.  It was only as a result of a successful lawsuit in 2006 that UPS allowed the deaf to drive delivery vans.  And it was not until 2013 that the US Department of Transportation changed its rules to allow deaf drivers to obtain commercial driver’s licenses.  These changes took much too long given the lack of evidence that deaf drivers are any less safe than hearing drivers.

One of the students at the presentation told me that when he purchases gas and has to go into the gas station to pay he is often met with questions about whether he is allowed to drive and whether it is  safe for him to drive. I found the students at the Delaware School for the Deaf to be among the most engaged and interactive of any students I have spoken with about distracted driving. They were open and honest, freely admitting some of their driving distractions, and eager to explore ways to drive safer. They were a great audience. To their credit, they also seemed more likely than hearing students  to speak up as passengers  when they saw drivers driving dangerously. If we are to make our roads safer we need to look at our driving  behaviors, including distractions, and make changes if necessary, and to speak up when we see those that we care about taking chances while driving. I am optimistic that these students will do so.

Here is a letter from Daphne Werner, Secondary and Transition School Leader about the school’s perspective on the presentation.