A proposal to lift commercial driver’s license (CDL) restrictions for the hearing impaired is raising concerns from driver trainers warning the change would make training less safe.

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) petition, filed in December, asks that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) repeal the requirement that commercial drivers be able to hear. The advocacy group also asked FMCA to amend the requirement that drivers be able to speak as well as the rule barring interpreters during the CDL skills testing.

“NAD believes the origins of the hearing requirement dates to a time of misguided stereotypes about the abilities and inabilities of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals and the rules should now be changed,” FMCSA stated.

FMCSA currently reviews individual cases for hearing-impaired drivers seeking a CDL and has granted nearly 600 waivers since 2013 for drivers who did not meet current regulatory requirements. Those in charge of training drivers, however, contend that a blanket lifting of the restrictions would create safety hazards as well as disrupt the training process.

“I’m glad to help anyone to get a CDL, and we’ve helped train many drivers that were hearing impaired,” Jill Balleh, president of Richmond, Virginia-based CDS Tractor Trailer Training, told FreightWaves. “But if someone is completely deaf and they depend on sign language or lip reading, I don’t think that’s a safe situation because of the split-second reaction time that’s needed during training.”

Balleh added that if regulators decide to lift the current restrictions for the hearing impaired, they should also be responsible for providing the methods and recommendations for the training process. “I don’t know if there’s a device that can be installed on the dashboard that can compensate for this – maybe there is. My biggest challenge is how to do this to make everyone safe. Show us how and we’ll be glad to walk that path.”

Tim Kordula, a Wisconsin-based instructor, took issue with easing restrictions that prohibit interpreters from being present during skills testing.

“As an instructor during the teaching phase, what disruptions could this cause if I have one or more deaf or hard-of-hearing students and have to repeat instructions via an interpreter, and is it fair to both?” Kordula asked in comments filed to the FMCSA opposing the change. “I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt [that] their integrity is priority. But how do I know the interpreter isn’t coaching? And where is the interpreter to sit? Or is the driver to take their eyes off the road to read the instructions?”

But one CDL instructor with experience teaching the deaf and hard of hearing rejected claims that training the hearing impaired is less safe.

“If you take all the distractions away from those of us that can hear, like cell phones and radios, you’re going to pay more attention to what’s around you,” Don Olds, an instructor with Abilene, Texas-based Action Career Training, told FreightWaves. “The deaf don’t have these things. The hearing community thinks they are better or safer, but that is far from the truth.”

Olds said that concerns about safety in the cab are misguided because deaf and hard-of-hearing students are told in the classroom that the instructor will be using nonverbal communication – not necessarily sign language – to alert the driver in emergency situations. “It’s just simple hand gestures that you already use when teaching hearing students,” he said. “The hearing requirements were started in 1970. It’s time to remove them.”

Comments on the proposal are due Feb. 14.