Car Travel

Hearing Loss in Cars

There is no secret to why riding in cars is so difficult for people who have hearing loss. The environment of a moving vehicle is a cacophony of sensory stimulation; road and engine noise, wind noise if the windows are down, radio blaring, lively conversation, fluctuating light, and distracting scenery. It takes a lot of concentration for a HoH to hear and respond to speech in a car.

Riding in Cars with HoHs

Chelle: I have a history of bad hearing in the cars. One of the first signs of hearing loss was in the car. As a teenager, I hated sitting in the backseat because I could not understand what was being said up front. Before seat belt laws, I leaned forward and forced half my body in the front seat to hear. I did not like feeling left out. Now that I’m older, I’m content to sit in the back and read or play on my phone. 

Chelle and her crazy kids as teenagers who helped her hear in the car. 
Picture: A older teenage boy with a blue green extra long stocking cap which is wrapped around his face too. He has a light camouflage hat on. In the back with a red background, Chelle with a tall mad hatter style hat on. To the left a younger teenager with jeans and a black shirt wearing a red sparkly hat. Sitting casually in a chair is an older teenage girl wearing a cap.
Chelle with her teenage children. They were good at helping her hear in cars.

Driving with hearing loss is a challenge…with hearing people in the car. Road noise and the stereo interfere with speech. When I had kids, I adjusted my rear view mirror so I could watch them talk from the back seat. Seeing is hearing! With no other adults in the car, one of the kids sat up front and became the translator for the others in the backseat. The kids and I had another rule; talk or music, not both. The front seat kid would pause the stereo to translate backseat comments and questions.

Several years ago, I got new hearing aids. They were so smart they automatically dampened the road noise and went into a forward focus mode. That meant my hearing aids were listening to the windshield, shutting down noise behind and beside me. My husband was not happy. He felt like my new hearing aids were worse than the old ones. I made an appointment with my audiologist and had my husband go with me, lending more credibility to the issue.

The audiologist called the hearing aid company about the situation. They were saying, “Her hearing aids adapt to those kinds of situations automatically,” and he told them, “No they do not.” Together they came up with the stroll program which forced the mics to listen from the side. It was developed for walking but it worked in the car too.

However, even with my hearing aids in the right program, cars are not easy for conversation. It takes more brain power to piece together conversation. It’s easier if I’m the passenger but even then, I’m still sifting through the noise. It’s more relaxing when I’m with my HoH friends. As HoHs, we decide to forgo talking, or the other person knows to look at me when talking and project their voice. It’s refreshing.

Julia: My experience with cars and HoHs is limited.  Once, I rode with several D/HoH people for a workshop as their captioner for the event. There was an advance plan for the fast food drive thru. We put together what everyone wanted to order, and my colleague who could hear and sign, placed the order. When questions came up she asked the appropriate person.

Julia and her grandmother.

My grandma and I maybe didn’t have the safest travel plan. Mostly, it was me looking at her at an angle so she could lipread me with my eyes angled back at the road. Yikes! DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. I will say, we did have a lot of peaceful travels when I look back and think about it now.

Riding with Chelle and her husband Ken during a camping trip, I sat in the back so Chelle could hear/know when I was talking, something I knew to do. I caught myself answering Ken’s random questions/comments, which brought me to an ah-ha moment of, oh boy, hearing people have a hard time just sitting in the silence.

1978: Michele, riding in her boyfriend’s truck.

Michele: Early on, my coping mechanism for conversation in cars was to fake it. Unable to see a speaker’s face, I was on pins and needles waiting for the inevitable—communication breakdown. I had no idea how to say what was true, “If I can’t see you, I can’t hear you,” and I was taught not to inconvenience others. I kept my hearing loss mostly to myself.

Also, my hyperacusis complicates things, making road/car engine/wind noise painful. On long road trips I sometimes wear earplugs.

Eventually, I came to terms with how to inform others, and with my hearing abilities. With a profound hearing loss comes the acceptance that there are going to be situations where no effort on my part will be effective. Realizing I can choose where to apply my abilities was powerful and I began to take control by saying what is true.

In a dark car, I tell the others, “I would love to chat, but I can’t lipread in the dark.” In the daytime, “I would love to chat, but I’m not able to follow the conversation.” I always have a book, laptop, and/or phone to occupy myself. Notice, “I’m sorry…,” is not part of my explanations. Saying sorry is a bad habit many HoHs have. We’re doing everything we can to hear and it’s not our fault we have a hearing loss, so why be sorry?

As a driver, I let passengers know I can’t respond to speech I can’t see, adding: “You don’t want me to look away from the road to lipread.” 

My kids were always aware I wasn’t going to answer them unless it was an emergency. Sometimes on longer drives—it was an hour each way to get three kids to piano lessons—I would pull over to take questions or ask them what they wanted at a red light.

Passengers tend to get frantic when emergency vehicles are approaching. They excitedly give me instructions, but I can’t react to what I can’t hear. Most of the time I’ve already spotted the flashing lights. Once I pull over, I let passengers know that it is not helpful, and is even dangerous, to take my attention away from what I need to be focusing on while driving. A better solution would be to agree on a simple sign or gesture for such occasions.

Hearing Loss LIVE! would love to hear from other HoHs and their hearing family and friends on how they handle all of the issues that come up while riding in cars together. Drop us a comment.

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