Photo shows a police vehicle pulled up behind a car.
Night-time traffic stop on Gregson St in Durham, North Carolina. Photo courtesy: Ildar Sagdejev, Wikimedia Creative Commons

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By Rose Hoban

A measure to help law enforcement officers identify people who have trouble hearing appears to be moving to the finish line at the General Assembly.

House Bill 84 would create a way to make a designation on a driver’s license that someone is either deaf or hard of hearing in order to facilitate understanding with police.

The initiative comes in response to the fatal shooting in August 2016 of a deaf Charlotte motorist who got into an altercation with a state highway patrol officer during a traffic stop.

“Hard of hearing individuals have some fear that they can’t comply with an officer’s directive and that fear is ever present,” said bill sponsor Rep. Deb Butler (D-Wilmington). “This is an effort to create a circumstance where the officer can be made aware to approach them perhaps with a heightened sense of awareness of their limitations.”

Notation

HB 84 would allow for people who have hearing disabilities to self-identify with the Division of Motor Vehicles. That designation would also appear in the database law enforcement officers access when they pull up behind a vehicle and run the tag number through the computer.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“When that officer pulls up that plate first thing, there’s that identification,” Jeff Mobley from the Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at the Department of Health and Human Services told the Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday.

The bill would also allow for people with hearing problems to either add or remove their names from the database at the DMV, something that caused some controversy during committee hearings on the bill. Representatives from the State Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies worked with Mobley and other DHHS representatives to come up with a way for people in deaf community to identify as deaf.

“It’s really trying to come up with a way respectful of the [deaf] culture,” said Assistant DHHS Secretary Ben Popkin. “You want to be respectful of their right to identify or not as they choose, and then law enforcement has information.”

One of the issues hammered out in committee Tuesday is the stipulation that someone who is hard of hearing just can’t add or remove themselves from the DMV list. Changes will need to involve a physician or audiologist, someone who is licensed to assess hearing.

Bill co-sponsor Verla Insko (D-Chapel Hill) said they would add that language before it goes to the Senate floor.

Stops

After Daniel Kevin Harris was shot by Trooper Jermaine Saunders last year, Insko said she started to hear from constituents telling her about difficulty during traffic stops.

“That really piqued their interest especially,” she said. “I got an outpouring from parents and family members, emails coming in.”

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“This is a big issue for them,” she said,

Mobley said his Division has already created communication aids in conjunction with troopers, helping to develop a visor card that people can present to self-identify as deaf or hard of hearing if they’re stopped by law enforcement.

“I had one story where a deaf individual actually used their visor card, they were broken down on the side of the road and it stimulated sufficient notification… that help was very easily gotten,” Mobley said.

Mobley’s division also worked with highway patrol to create a notebook with illustrations of situations such as speeding or failing to signal a lane change that officers can use to communicate.

“So if there is an instance where no communication is possible, the officer should be able to go to their glove box in their cruiser, pull out their book and just kind of establish some type of… here’s a picture of what you did wrong,” he explained. The book also has dry erase pages so the officer and driver can communicate in writing.

Those kinds of aids are needed, Mobley said, because hearing aids and cochlear implants only process some frequencies, but ambient sound in the world has a wide spectrum of frequencies that  can be difficult to process.

“Because of traffic, if they’re on a busy highway or something like that, they’re going to struggle to hear,” Mobley said.

The bill now proceeds to the Senate floor for a vote. Because it was amended in the Senate, it will need to return to the House for a final vote.

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...