Hearing-impaired drivers get help

Visor cards inform police during traffic stops that motorist is deaf

September 16, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Robert Smart carries a bit of security in his car's sun visor. It's a card that reads: DRIVER is DEAF.

Like many deaf drivers, Smart, a 59-year-old Arbutus resident, has suffered through long, confusing and potentially dangerous encounters with police during traffic stops because the officer did not know that Smart could not hear his instructions.

Smart hopes the card, which is being distributed to deaf drivers throughout the state by the Maryland Sheriffs' Association, will make future traffic stops easier.

Sheriffs' Association officials estimate they have handed out about 20,000 cards since the program began in the spring.

In Howard County, deputies have distributed nearly 700 cards.

Some of the cards had been given out earlier by individual sheriff's offices and advocates for the deaf.

Volkswagen of America Inc. also is distributing the cards nationwide.

Deaf advocates estimate that more than half a million deaf and hearing-impaired people live in Maryland.

"The card is a big relief," Smart said through an interpreter. "The most important thing for a deaf person is communication, and when [police] don't know you're deaf ... bad things can happen."

Deaf and hearing-impaired drivers throughout the nation have complained that they cannot communicate with police officers during traffic stops. A West Virginia man who said a state sheriff's deputy did not give him a pen and paper during a 1999 traffic stop filed a lawsuit, saying he was not given necessary resources to communicate.

"Getting pulled over for anyone is stressful, but it's especially touchy for a deaf person because there's this person of authority that has a gun and can put you under arrest, but they can't hear you," said Karen Dillon, a member of the Southern Maryland Interpreting Service.

Smart wishes he'd had the card about 10 years ago, when he and his wife were stopped on Interstate 76 near Pittsburgh as they were on their way home from a family reunion.

After a few minutes of shouting and gesturing - at one point, the officer shined a flashlight on his mouth in the hope Smart could read his lips - the officer finally led Smart to the front of the car to show him that his high beams were on.

Smart, a retired Sun employee, estimates the encounter lasted 10 minutes. "It should've taken two seconds," he said.

But Smart's encounter was mild compared with others. A U.S. Justice Department investigation found that two Wisconsin state troopers did not allow a deaf driver and his passenger to sign to each other during a traffic stop and wouldn't give the pair a pen and paper for communication.

Deaf advocates agree that police have a difficult job when they stop a deaf person, especially since a deaf person's first instinct is often to reach into the glove compartment to get a pen and paper, which police could easily mistake for a more serious action.

"That's the first thing they will go for ... even though an officer is saying: `Don't go there, don't reach in there,'" said Fred Davis, Charles County sheriff and president of the Maryland Sheriffs' Association, and a strong supporter of the card.

Both New Jersey and Delaware are considering adopting a similar card.

Meanwhile, in Maryland, the Sheriffs' Association is planning to order more visor cards, which also carry reminders that qualified interpreters must be provided upon request.

Smart has had his card for about a month and has not been pulled over during that time. But he knows exactly what he'll do the next time he sees flashing blue lights.

"I'll hand him my card and everything ... should be OK," he said.

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