Q: My parents are reaching the age of 90, and they are still driving. I am very concerned about their wellbeing and the wellbeing of others on the road. Do you have any pointers to share with my parents regarding driving with questionable hearing?
A: When we’re driving, we actually rely on our hearing more than we think. The sense of hearing is second only to sight when we’re behind the wheel. The ability to hear helps us detect the sound of horns, emergency vehicles nearby, and even the subtle sound of the turn signal. Having hearing loss doesn’t significantly affect the ability to drive, but it does mean the individual needs to take extra caution when driving.
If your parents’ hearing is in question, a consultation with an audiologist will determine whether they have hearing loss as well as the type and degree of the loss. If either of them has a hearing loss that can be medically treated, it’s important to do so to prevent it from becoming a permanent situation.
If sensorineural hearing loss is diagnosed, then hearing aids are recommended. With hearing aids, your parents will be able to hear the important sounds they’ve been missing. It is so important to keep the brain nourished with sounds that have been missing. Restoring missing sounds enables the brain to stay healthy and even relearn to hear road sounds so it can, for example, recognize the sound of a deflating tire.
Hearing aids are the best gift for the brain. And today’s hearing aids are technological marvels, with sensitive microphones designed to better discriminate between speech and background noises. Yet even with hearing aids, you’ll want your parents to eliminate distractions while they’re driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), distracted driving claimed almost 3,500 lives in 2016 and injured more than 390,000 people in 2017 alone. Here are a few tips to help your parents and anyone else with hearing loss keep distractions on the road to a minimum:
- Before you start driving, make sure your hearing aids are working according to the manufacturer’s specification to avoid any distractions such as feedback. The hearing aids should also have new batteries so they don’t die while you’re on the road. And under no circumstances should you attempt to change batteries in your hearing aids while driving.
- While you are on the road, make sure there’s not too much noise inside the car. Adjust the radio volume so it doesn’t affect your ability to concentrate and listen to what’s going on around you. You should either turn the radio off or lower the volume before you leave the driveway. If there are passengers, try to keep the volume of conversation low and speak one at a time so you can focus on the road and hear the conversation. Keeping the windows closed will also help to reduce the road noise.
- Because automobiles today are designed to be quiet and provide a more enjoyable driving experience, people are more inclined to speak on their phones while driving. I would encourage you to minimize phone use while driving, as talking on the phone will alter your responsiveness as well as affect your ability to hear what’s happening on the road.
- If you are stopped by law enforcement while driving, you may wish to inform them about your hearing loss and the fact that you’re wearing hearing aids so that they can more effectively communicate with you. Who knows, maybe they’ll even let you off without a citation this time!
- Once distractions are minimized, you’ll have more capacity to focus on the information your ears are collecting along the way.
When there is any degree of hearing loss, driving comes with a lot of responsibility. That means anytime. Make sure to have your hearing assessed annually. This is important for your safety on the road as well as those who share it with you.
Randa Mansour-Shousher, AuD, CCC-A, is a Doctor of Audiology with Northwest Ohio Hearing Clinic, located at 1125 Hospital Dr., Suite 50 in Toledo (419-383-4012) and 1601 Brigham Dr., Suite 160 in Perrysburg (419-873-4327). ❦