While an estimated 43% of adults over the age of 65 have hearing loss, roughly only 25% wear hearing aids. Many are in denial about their hearing loss, often because it is a gradual process and are truly unaware that there is a problem. Others are concerned that admitting to a hearing loss or assisting it with amplification will make them look “old.” Although, untreated hearing loss has been known to lead to social isolation and depression and recent studies have correlated a decrease in auditory stimulation to dementia, untreated hearing loss poses safety issues as well, especially for drivers.
The open road is a dangerous place. Anyone getting into a car and turning on the ignition has a tremendous responsibility; the life of the driver, passengers, pedestrians and other motorists is in many senses in a heighten state of vulnerability. Careful driving requires engagement of visual and auditory senses to make informed often, very quick decisions to navigate safely. Hearing loss can greatly impair an individual’s ability to hear important safety cues such as a horn honking, a siren, or another vehicle accelerating nearby. Street noise outside the car and the hum of traffic can make it difficult for normal hearing drivers to detect signals, for those with hearing loss, background noise presents an even greater challenge.
Hearing loss alone provides significant safety concern on the road. Hearing loss combined with the ordinary distractions of driving makes for an even riskier environment. A study of older adults with hearing loss published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society entitled Hearing Impairment Affects Older People’s Ability to Drive in the Presence of Distracters found that there was a significant correlation between hearing impairment and driving performance in the presence of distracters. The study concluded that older adults with hearing loss had greater difficulty driving safely in the presence of distracters than older adults with normal hearing. Because distractions such as conversation, reading street signs, listening to the radio, using a mobile phone or navigation system are a present day reality for all drivers, those with hearing loss face an even greater challenge when confronted with distraction. This study, which references similar studies of adults with hearing loss suggests that the additional effort of listening to a degraded auditory signal detracts one’s resources from other cognitive tasks, making it more difficult to attend safely to the road.
Good hearing is essential to good driving. But drivers with hearing loss needn’t necessarily hang up their keys, instead they should seek help. If you suspect you or a loved one has a hearing loss, see an audiologist for an audiologic evaluation. If you have a diagnosed hearing loss, see your audiologist annually to monitor for changes. If hearing aids are prescribed, they should always be worn when driving. Finally, make responsible decisions; if your senses are impaired, your driving ability can suffer, especially for older adults. When on the road, be smart, be courteous, and remember, your safety and that of others is at stake.
Hickson L, Wood J, Chaparro, A, Lacherez, P, Marszalek, R. Hearing impairments affects older people’s ability to drive in the presence of distracters. Journal of the American Geriactrics Society, 2010; 58:1097-1103