Driving in Silence


September 2012

by Amanda Jakl

Randall Doane has been driving big rigs for more than 10 years. Driving
double and triple trailers, and tankers and hazardous material, he’s
logged more than a quarter million miles across nearly 30 states and
Canada until this year when he failed a hearing test.

Doane’s wings have been cut, so to speak, as his routes are now limited
to the state of Texas. Along with 45 deaf or hard-of-hearing drivers,
Doane is requesting an exemption from the federal law prohibiting deaf
drivers from driving commercial vehicles across state lines. He’s an
experienced driver who wants to drive, but his hearing loss is holding
him back.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires that
any commercial driver be able to perceive, with or without a hearing
aid, “a forced whispered voice in the better ear at not less than five
feet” or that the driver “does not have an average hearing loss in the
better ear greater than 40 decibels.” A refrigerator hum is about 40
decibels. A diesel truck is 84 decibels. Prolonged exposure to sounds
over 90 decibels can lead to gradual hearing loss. Truck drivers risk
hearing loss every year they stay behind the wheel.

Professional driver licensing is done at the state level, but with
commercial vehicles involved in interstate commerce, drivers must
obtain a federal license as well. Most states allow the deaf to drive
commercial vehicles, but federal law prohibits them from obtaining a
commercial driver’s license for interstate commerce. So essentially,
deaf drivers can operate a truck anywhere within their state, but they
can’t cross the state line. Jesse Shelander, a deaf driver in Texas who
has driven commercial trucks since 1999 and currently works for Mine
Services, Ltd., deals with this rule every day. “I had a request from
my supervisor to drive out to Louisiana to pick up and haul heavy
equipment twice,” he says, “but couldn’t because my license is for
driving intrastate only.”

Shelander and Doane are members of Deaf Truckers United (DTU), a
Facebook group for deaf and hard-of-hearing truck drivers and their
hearing advocates. DTU was founded in 2011 by Brenda Palmigiano, a
former driving instructor who is also deaf. She created the group,
which boasts more than 200 members, to “network with other deaf
truckers in the United States and to share the common goals in regards
of the employment issues” after she realized that “many deaf truckers
had similar problems as mine.”

How does hearing affect driving skills? Needless to say, deaf drivers
depend on their vision to warn them of possible safety issues. “Deaf
people have found many modern technologies inside the truck that will
assist them to detect any malfunction, like airbrakes issues, warning
lights and PSI,” Shelander points out. They also depend on their sense
of touch.

“I get hooked up to the tunes of the diesel motor at work and get the
feel of the air suspension tunes,” Doane says. “That is my music.”
Changes in vibrations from the truck can warn deaf drivers of flat
tires and airbrake issues, the DTU reports, changes that hearing
drivers don’t always identify. Some research indicates that deaf
drivers may have better peripheral vision, not that Doane relies on
that. “I become an owl where my neck moves to the farthest left and to
the farthest right,” he says.

Between the cell phone ringing, the radio blaring and the CB crackling,
today’s truck driver is distracted. Cruising at 60 miles an hour, a
truck driver that takes two seconds to look down to change a music CD
has traveled 176 feet blindly – a distraction that could cost lives.
Deaf drivers don’t have those distractions, which potentially makes
them safer drivers.

A hearing advocate of DTU, Greg Newman, wondered how much of his
driving ability was dependent on hearing. He decided to conduct an
experiment. He drove 500 miles while wearing earplugs, “just to get an
idea of what these folks deal with.” He admits it’s not the most
scientific experiment, blocking his hearing by about 80 percent, but he
gained a new appreciation for the deaf and hard of hearing. “I caught
myself driving slower, checking my mirrors more often, watching my
gauges more closely,” he says. “All in all I felt I was being more
cautious. These folks do all of this naturally.”

Newman’s rudimentary experiment reinforces the results of a 2008 study
requested by the FMCSA regarding hearing loss and commercial motor
vehicle safety. The study was unable to produce any clear connection
between auditory disabilities and crash risks.

Even in the auto insurance industry, deaf drivers pay the same premiums
as their hearing counterparts because “evidence from studies of the
private driver license holder population does not support the
contention that individuals with hearing impairment are at an increased
risk for a crash.” The FMCSA also recognizes this is not a matter of
driving expertise, saying the issue is the physical qualification is
hearing and not the actual driving skills of deaf drivers.

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), which advocates in all
industries for the deaf and hard of hearing, affirms that communication
in trucking is no longer hindered by hearing loss because of the
increased use of technology like Qualcomm and smartphones. Scott
Friede, a deaf driver from Nebraska, points out that driving the truck
is not his biggest challenge as a deaf driver. The vehicle inspections
with verbal instructions and weigh stations without lights are the
obstacles that block his path.

The FMCSA law affects both deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers. The
difference between being deaf and hard of hearing can often be
confusing to the hearing community. Dean DeRusso, a deaf systems
advocate at the Regional Center for Independent Living in Rochester,
N.Y., champions policy issues affecting the deaf and hard of hearing.

“Hard-of-hearing people [sometimes] call themselves a ‘person with mild
to moderate hearing loss,'” he explains. “Most of the time, the hard of
hearing feel that they are not deaf due to their dependence on being
able to hear and speak. The hard of hearing also look at deaf people as
people who depend on their eyes.” Because of these distinctions, there
can be a separation between the “people who are born deaf or have
hearing loss in their lifetime.” But both groups are fighting for the
same rights.

The FMCSA treats the deaf differently as well as the mute. Federal law
requires drivers to be able to speak English, while states’ laws do
not. Since many deaf truck drivers are unable to speak, but can read
and write in English, they cannot obtain a federal commercial driver’s
license, putting them in the same category as a foreign truck driver.

Some drivers can wear hearing aids that allow them to pass the hearing
test, even if they can’t understand the words. The ability to
communicate is less important than the ability to hear a hushed
whisper. Deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers who want to try out a hearing
aid must pay for it themselves. And the suggestion of cochlear implants
is insensitive to deaf drivers.

DeRusso explains that cochlear implants do not have a high success rate
and even those drivers who have implants can’t always hear above the
noise of the cab. More importantly, he says, it’s “not fair to the deaf
person [to feel] that they have to go under the knife to get a job.”

According to the FMCSA, the exemption request by NAD is the first of
its kind. “Prior to the National Association of the Deaf’s application
for exemptions from the hearing standard, FMCSA had not received any
requests for regulatory relief from the rule,” a FMCSA spokesperson
says. “The agency welcomes the opportunity to address this issue
through the notice-and-comment exemption process and looks forward to
issuing a decision on the matter later this year.”

The FMCSA has allowed exemptions in the past. It wasn’t long ago that
drivers with insulin-dependent diabetes were prohibited from driving
commercial vehicles. Now diabetic truck drivers can file for an
exemption every two years. It stands to reason that deaf drivers should
be able to do the same.



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