#In-Depth: The Sound Barrier in getting a Driving Licence — a look at the Deaf community’s access to driving privileges

By Apoorv Kulkarni, Ola Mobility Institute & Vidya Menon, V-shesh

Vehicle sign for drivers with hearing loss — Telangana, India
Vehicle sign for drivers with hearing loss — Telangana, India

Historically, whether the Deaf and hard of hearing people should drive a vehicle has been a contentious issue. Transportation, which is affordable, reliable and flexible to one’s needs, is essential to get full access to various social, economic, health and educational opportunities. This is especially true for the 7 million+ Deaf people in India (Census 2011), who need to travel more often than others given the difficulty with phone or video calls. At the same time, there is a need to ensure public safety. Therefore, a driving licence (DL) is awarded to only people who are competent to safely drive a vehicle. Thus, a pertinent question arises: what role does hearing play in one’s ability to drive a vehicle safely, and can technology help in this matter?

Let’s take an in-depth look into this topic and celebrate the International Week of the Deaf 2020.

Role of hearing in the ability to drive

Sign Language Video

The All India Institute Of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) observes that, “Driving is primarily a visual function with little inputs from hearing.” It also recognises that the loss of hearing does not per-se impact the ability to drive. Further, research from the United Kingdom has demonstrated that Deaf individuals have a faster peripheral visual response time as compared to hearing individuals. Several countries including Japan, United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France and Australia allow Deaf people to get a DL provided they don’t live with other disabilities. The Indian Deaf community has long been advocating for their right to get a DL on similar grounds.

In 2011, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) secured a landmark judgement wherein the Delhi High Court observed that the Deaf and Hard of Hearing can apply for a Learner’s Licence (LL). It further added that if such a person meets the necessary conditions, and passes the driving tests, they should be granted a DL.

In 2013, the Mumbai High Court, in response to the petition filed by Amit Ashok Tribhuvan, issued notice to the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Maharashtra Government, Transport Commissioner and Regional Transport Office (RTO), Pune. Subsequently, in 2016, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) directed all RTOs to consider applications for DL in light of the AIIMS statement mentioned above. However, in spite of the various research, expert opinions and court orders, the on-the-ground situation still has considerable scope for improvement.

Experience of getting a DL

In August-September 2020, Ola Mobility Institute and V-shesh conducted an online survey to understand the experience of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community of getting a DL. 35 respondents from Bangalore, 23 from Mumbai and 18 from Delhi (76 total) completed the survey. The respondents included 18 women and 58 men who lived with hearing loss. 74% of the respondents were between 21 -40 years of age. The survey was supplemented with an online Focus Group Discussion (FGD) consisting of 2 women and 7 men from the survey respondents.

Funnel analysis of the responses presents interesting insights

Conversion funnel representing the success rate of getting a DL for the Deaf community
Conversion funnel representing the success rate of getting a DL for the Deaf community
Conversion funnel representing the success rate of getting a DL for the Deaf community

Out of the 76 respondents, only 47 (62%) were able to submit an application for a Learner’s Licence (LL). Three main reasons for not submitting an application are fear of rejection by the RTO on account of hearing loss, discouragement from friends and family and the insistence of some RTOs that these individuals should submit the application from their home-town. The first two reasons may be attributed to the past experiences of the community, believe the FGD participants.

The success rate for getting a Learner’s Licence was 72% and that for Permanent Licence (PL) was 56%. Comparable figures for the hearing population from Mumbai (2018) were 75% for LL and 90% for PL.

The lower success rate may be attributed to a few reasons including a potential bias against the Deaf community and various inaccessibilities (including communication barrier) throughout the process to get a DL.

However, a further comprehensive study will be required on this subject to arrive at a reliable conclusion.

How can technology help?

Sign Language Video

Deaf and Hard of Hearing people’s ability to drive safely is often questioned as audio signals such as horns and sirens may be unavailable to them. Hearing aids can help in picking up audio signals for some people. However, for others, they amplify background noise such that it hinders their concentration. Visual signals such as indicators and spatial awareness through mirrors can compensate for the missing audio signals. For instance, In the UK, Australia, Germany, Belgium, Thailand and Malaysia, authorities insist on special double rear-view mirrors for this purpose.

Clipped convex mirror on a car’s wing mirror
Clipped convex mirror on a car’s wing mirror
Clipped convex mirror on a car’s wing mirror

Innovations such as blind-spot detection and rear cross-traffic alert systems can help in further empowering persons with hearing loss to drive safely. These innovations are powerful examples of #UniversalDesign principles.

Blind-spot detection system

Rear cross-traffic alert system

Advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI) are also helping in empowering Deaf drivers. Hyundai uses AI with Audio-Visual Conversion (AVC) and Audio-Tactile Conversion (ATC) technologies to identify sounds outside the car and communicate them to the driver.

AVC converts sound patterns such as horns and sirens and represents them visually. Similarly, ATC converts these signals into tactile feedback through vibrations in the steering wheel — much like the vibrations on mobile phones. Hyundai’s technology is yet to be commercially available, but represents a promising solution nonetheless.

Many start-ups are working on integrating Augmented Reality (AR) technology in automobiles. Relevant information is displayed right on the windscreen making driving easier and safer for everyone.

The use of technology can enable more Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals to get DL as well as to drive more confidently and safely.

Recommendations and way forward:

Sign Language Video

The following steps can help in improving the Deaf community’s access to DL while empowering them to drive a vehicle safely:

  1. Conduct an audit of the DL application process to identify inaccessibilities and adapt it for the Deaf community. One easy intervention could be an online platform to connect with a sign language interpreter for facilitating interaction between a Deaf person and the RTO staff.
  2. Invest in capability building for enabling Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals to learn to drive safely. This could include establishing dedicated driving schools such as UK’s ECOL Driving School or creating app-based or online content on driving lessons in sign language such as Aceable drivers ed.
  3. Encourage automobile manufacturers to adopt #UniversalDesign practices and integrate technologies such as the ones mentioned above in their vehicles.
  4. Tech solutions can increase the cost of automobiles. Therefore, the Government may allow waiver of GST on vehicles fitted with assistive tools and technologies to make them more affordable. This is in lines of the GST waiver available for vehicles purchased by persons living with locomotor disabilities. Alternatively, automobile companies may also be encouraged to provide a special discount on such vehicles. The Government could recognise such a discount as an eligible Corporate Social Responsibility spending mandated under the Companies Act, 2013.
  5. Run awareness campaigns to train and sensitise RTO officers and doctors to support members of the Deaf community who wish to get a DL. Similarly, Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals and their families should be sensitized on the means to get a DL and drive safely.

As India aspires to become Atma-Nirbhar (self-reliant), we need to empower our entire human capital to achieve their full potential. The above steps could help shatter the sound barrier in getting a DL for an important yet often overlooked constituency. This will in turn unlock numerous opportunities and empower the Deaf community to contribute towards nation-building.

Apoorv Kulkarni is Associate Director, Ola Mobility Institute and Vidya Menon is Special Educator & Lead Trainer for Deaf learners, V-shesh.

The sign Language videos are provided by Sunil Sahasrabudhe, Indian Sign Language Interpreters Association (ISLIA)

In-Depth is a fortnightly blog series by OMI on the latest mobility-related developments. Follow us on Twitter and Medium for regular updates.

Ola’s in-house policy research and social innovation think-tank! Follow for latest mobility insights and conversations. For website, visit https://ola.institute