Group Seeks to Exempt Deaf Drivers From Federal Hearing Requirements

By Timothy Cama, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the June 4 print edition of Transport Topics.

The increased use of technology in truck cabs means that hearing is not as important in commercial driving as it once was, the National Association of the Deaf said in a petition asking that 45 drivers be exempted from federal hearing standards.

“While hearing historically may have played a role in communications in trucking, this is no longer the case as drivers increasingly rely on smart phones and other technology to communicate with dispatch,” NAD wrote to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The deaf or hard-of-hearing drivers — some of whom hold state commercial driver licenses but cannot drive in interstate commerce — have all shown that they can drive just as safely as their counterparts without hearing problems, NAD wrote.



FMCSA posted the petition in the Federal Register on May 25 and is seeking public comments until June 26. NAD sent a petition in July 2011 for 21 drivers and more recently added 24 more.

“NAD now seeks exemptions on behalf of drivers with a proven track record of safe driving, who can satisfy all of the physical qualification standards, with the exception of the hearing test,” the group wrote.

This is the first time FMCSA has considered waiving its hearing standard in the more than two decades since the agency, then part of the Federal Highway Administration, set the current system for exemptions to medical standards, a spokeswoman previously said (10-24, p. 6).

FMCSA grants exemptions to its medical standards on a case-by-case basis.

Current regulations require that a driver must be able to hear a “forced whispered voice” spoken 5 feet away from his or her better ear, with or without a hearing aid.

If his or her hearing is being tested with an audiometric device, he must be able to hear 40 decibels at 500 Hz, 1,000 Hz and 2,000 Hz, also with or without a hearing aid.

Some drivers in NAD’s petition could pass the hearing standard at one point, but their hearing has deteriorated, the group said.

American Trucking Associations plans to support the exemptions requested in NAD’s petition and to encourage further research into the hearing standards and whether deaf or hard-of-hearing drivers are safe, said Boyd Stephenson, director of hazmat policy at ATA.

“We believe that these drivers ought to be used as the basis of some sort of research to overarchingly study the safety of deaf drivers and commercial motor vehicle safety,” Stephenson told Transport Topics.

Citing a shortage of commercial drivers, he said that if hearing standards are changed, it could open the door to more drivers.

Instead of case-by-case exemptions, ATA would rather “see FMCSA more holistically looking at their medical qualification regulations and working on a way such that they can qualify those deaf drivers who are as safe as those who can hear,” Stephenson said.

In its petition, NAD cited a 2008 report, funded by FMCSA, which concluded that there was no evidence that drivers with hearing impairments had in­creased crash risks.

NAD said hearing loss allows drivers to avoid distractions.

“Anecdotally, deaf drivers in our interviews reported that they face fewer distractions behind the wheel,” the group said. “For instance, deaf drivers are not distracted by conversations in the car, sudden noises, cellphone usage, radio and music, all of which are proven distractions to hearing drivers.”

 

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