The Sounds of Silence
Riding while Deaf
John Christiansen
Washington DC, 2013

One of the things I enjoy doing as a retired professor is riding my bicycle—in fact, one could say I'm pretty much obsessed with the activity. Like many people, I started riding young. As a teenager I enjoyed taking extended rides along the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake City, where I grew up.

But that was nothing like what I've been doing since the mid-1980s when I took up cycling again in earnest. My first decent bike, purchased to celebrate my fortieth birthday, was a Cannondale touring bike, and I rode that for many years. Then, in 2001, I started riding a Trek recumbent. I've had periodic problems with my back over the years, and was assured by the manager of my local bike shop that a recumbent was much more forgiving for the back than a road or touring bike with its signature drop bars. I used to enjoy playing tennis, but had to give it up when the unpredictable stops and starts began playing havoc with my back, and cycling proved to be an adequate substitute. In fact, it was even better than tennis since it could be done alone; I didn't need to find a partner in order to get some exercise.

I rode my recumbent quite a bit from 2001 to 2007, when I got another bike, this time a Rambouillet, a touring bike made by Rivendell Bicycle Works in California. The recumbent was getting a bit tiresome, especially since it was impossible to get out of the seat to stand up for climbs. I still use it occasionally, but have come to prefer the upright model, which, unlike many road bikes, can be adjusted so the seat and the handlebar are approximately the same height. I thought this would be good for my back—and, indeed, it has been. The Rambouillet is convenient in another way as well: it is easier to turn around and see if there is anything behind me on a road bike than on a recumbent. This was especially important after I first had glaucoma surgery, and then cataract surgery, to partially correct a vision problem in my left eye, an unfortunate consequence of shingles. (If you're sixtyish and have not had a shingles vaccination you might want to think about getting one soon). I always ride with a small mirror attached to my sunglasses or my helmet, but I usually like to double check that there are no cars or trucks coming up behind me when I'm changing lanes.

There is a very good reason why I use a mirror and double check: I am deaf. During the past 30 years or so I have more or less diligently written down the number of miles I've ridden, and the total is well over 50,000 miles. I've ridden the vast majority of these miles without using either a hearing aid or a cochlear implant. I wore a hearing aid, sometimes two of them, from the time I was a hard-of-hearing teenager until my early fifties when I decided to have cochlear implant surgery in my right ear. A cochlear implant is somewhat different from a hearing aid in that, instead of simply amplifying sounds, it uses a micro-computer, worn outside the ear, to send electrical signals down a several-inch-long electrode array that has been surgically implanted into the cochlea.

Some of the experiences I've had while riding my bike have been somewhat scary, especially recently, and I decided I needed to try using a hearing aid again on my non-implanted left ear while riding. (Because a cochlear implant is less securely attached than a hearing aid—there is typically no ear mold, for example—I decided not to wear the implant while riding, which would risk damaging the expensive device. It is not possible to use a hearing aid on my right ear since I use a cochlear implant on that ear; because of the nature of implant surgery, one can no longer use a hearing aid on an ear that has an implant.)

Two things happened on the inappropriately (for me) named Good Luck Road, a fairly well-traveled but not excessively busy road not too far from my home. In one case, I was riding along when a car pulled up next to me and, suddenly, someone reached out and solidly punched me in the arm. Fortunately it wasn't hard enough to knock me off my bike, but it was certainly unexpected and definitely not appreciated. About the same time, and not far from the same location on the same road, I was blissfully riding along one afternoon and the passenger in a car that slowly crept past me pulled out a gun and waved it around. I don't know if this was a starter pistol or the real thing, but he didn't pull the trigger in any event. Since I couldn't hear them, I have no idea if the driver had been honking to get me to pull over, if they had otherwise tried to get my attention, or if they were just fooling around.

On some occasions when I've ridden with a friend there have been situations where it is clear that drivers have tried to get our attention, either by persistently honking or by shouting something from their car. The only reason I know this is because the other person I've ridden with could hear them and tell me about it. I recall one instance in Northern Virginia where a Gallaudet University faculty colleague and I were riding and the driver was pounding on the horn and screaming at us to get off the road (I taught sociology at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, a university that serves deaf and hard of hearing students, for more than three decades). I was pretty oblivious to the whole thing, but I can certainly imagine that if my friend hadn't told me to move over the driver would have been even more furious. Has something like this happened when I've been out riding alone? I'm sure it must have.

However, the most dangerous and frightening situations occurred not when I was around angry drivers. One of the routes I like to take on my bike is to ride from my home to the Beltsville, Maryland, Agricultural Research Center (BARC), a multi-acre agricultural center operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It's about eight miles away. While there are some well-traveled roads around the center, many of the other roads have few cars on them, and it is a fairly popular place for cyclists who live in my neck of the woods (which includes thousands of students at the nearby University of Maryland). In fact, I'm pretty sure that somewhere in the research center was where former President George W. Bush often rode his bike. Unfortunately, or fortunately as the case may be, I never ran into him (presumably because he didn't ride on the public roads), even though there must have been times when we were both riding in the same general area.

In order to get to the roads that run through the research center I usually ride near the College Park Metrorail stop, which is adjacent to two train tracks, running north and south, that are typically used by freights as well as commuter trains. There is a very primitive stop for the commuter trains where I ride across the tracks. Passengers and others can walk across the tracks, but there is no crossing signal or station. When approaching the crossing on a bicycle, especially from the south as I usually do, it is fairly easy to see north, but not so easy to see what's coming from the south since there are a lot of trees and shrubs separating the tracks from the parallel side street.

Generally, I slow down when approaching the railroad tracks, but I rarely stop, glancing first north to my left and then, as I ride past the trees, south to my right. By the time I turn my head right I'm usually very close to the first track, when it is pretty much too late to stop even if I want to. In addition, the trains, especially the freight trains, typically create a lot of vibration, and I assumed I could feel the earth shake when one was approaching, even if I couldn't hear the horn. I have walked near the railroad crossing many times, and have always felt I was able to tell, by vibrations alone, when a train was coming. So, over the years, I concluded that my early-warning system, such as it was, was adequate and that I would have time to see if there were any trains coming before riding across the tracks on my bike. Plus, it only took a second to ride across the tracks in any event, so I wasn't too worried about it or even thought much about it.

The first time my dubious methodology was called into question was a few years ago when, after I got close to the first track, I could see that a fast approaching freight train from the south was only a couple of hundred feet away from me. I assume the engineer must have been using the train's horn to warn me and anyone else crazy enough to be near the track to get out of the way, but I didn't hear anything. Obviously, there was nothing else the engineer could have done; he (or perhaps she) certainly couldn't have slammed on the brakes. But, lucky for me, I saw the train in time and quickly pedaled past the tracks towards a tunnel under the adjacent Metrorail tracks.

This train was on the second of the two parallel tracks. That is, as I was crossing the first track on my bicycle I could see the train rapidly approaching from the south on the second track. Consequently, even if it had been right in front of me, I still could have stopped since I was riding very slowly. In any case, while this was somewhat traumatic, I saw it as a "one time thing" and didn't think too much about it until recently.

I'm sure there is a tendency in life to become complacent, to follow the path of least resistance, especially when the usual way of doing something seems to be good enough. For several years after this close encounter with the approaching locomotive, I continued to approach the crossing in my usual way. Sometimes I could see a train headlight off in the distance, but it was usually a long way off, and I assumed that if anything was closer I would be able to feel it.

One weekday morning in September 2009, shortly after I retired from Gallaudet University, I decided to enjoy my newfound freedom by taking a bicycle ride at a time that, only a few months earlier, I would probably have been teaching a class or at least working in my office. I was anticipating riding some variation of my usual route around the BARC, and approached the railroad crossing in College Park in my usual lackadaisical way. I looked to my left, saw no train there, and started to cross the first track. Then I looked to my right and was terrified to see that a train was bearing down on me, on the first track this time, probably no more than fifty feet away, and showing no sign of slowing down. By this time I was right in the center of the track and, without giving the matter much thought, pedaled as hard as I could to get out of the way. Fortunately I hadn't disengaged my shoes from the pedals; if I had it would have been very difficult to get off the track. Since I'm still around to write about it, I obviously made it safely past the oncoming train, but was pretty shook up by the experience, and almost ran into another cyclist coming through the tunnel. I continued my ride, which was probably a good thing, since it gave me a chance to work off some nervous energy.

As was the case a few years earlier, I'm sure the engineer was madly blasting the horn. And, as before, I was oblivious to the whole thing. Reflecting on this during my ride, I was surprised that I had not felt the vibrations from the train at all, and I realized that my "early-warning system" left much to be desired. I was also surprised, and somewhat angry as well, that the engineer was obviously driving the train on the "wrong track." The trains I'd seen on these tracks had always followed the American way of driving on the right. (And I've seen a number of trains on these tracks since this incident, and they were all—well, all but one, anyway—on the right track, too.) Why was the engineer driving the train on the left? In any event, I quickly came to the conclusion that if I wanted to enjoy my retirement years, something would have to change.

The day before this ride I happened to have had my annual cochlear implant evaluation with my audiologist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. (Like hearing aid users, people who use a cochlear implant need to have the device checked and perhaps reprogrammed from time to time to be sure it is working properly.) I had been using a new model for a few months, and it was time to see if it needed some adjustments. One of the things we talked about was bilateral implantation, which has become more popular among adult implant users during the past few years. (It has also become quite popular among young deaf children as well—and their parents, more than 90% of whom are not deaf.) Like many users of hearing aids, more and more cochlear implant users are exploring the benefits of stereophonic hearing. My audiologist said that if I ever decided to pursue a second implant, I should begin by using a hearing aid in my non-implanted (left) ear. I had pretty much stopped using a hearing aid in 2001 after I got my implant, and, over the years, gave away the aids that I had. I particularly did not like having to use an ear mold, which often did not fit very well and caused a lot of annoying whistling, and I was getting such good results from my implant that I never really missed the aids. Many people do, in fact, use a cochlear implant and a hearing aid together, and, while I never liked it the few times I tried, I thought that with the improvements in hearing aid technology during the past decade perhaps it was time to try it again. In any case, that was what I was thinking about when I left Johns Hopkins after my appointment.

After my too-close-for-comfort experience with the oncoming train the next day, I thought it wise to put the new hearing aid plan into fast-forward mode and see if I could at least find something I could use while riding my bike. Although it might be nice to have a hearing aid that could also be used while I was wearing my cochlear implant, it was a lot more important to try to find something I could use while biking, especially since I have no intention of giving that up. It took a few months to finally get a good digital hearing aid, and for the past three years or so I have been riding my bike while wearing the hearing aid on my left ear (with an ear mold anchoring the aid in the ear canal, a sweat band, and a helmet, there is little danger of the hearing aid falling out while riding). Although the it is not perfect, it's many times better than nothing, and it does enable me to hear oncoming trains, fire engines, and many of the other potential hazards that bike riders face each day.

In addition, using a hearing aid while riding makes it easier to adhere to an important norm of cycling: offering assistance to another rider stranded on the side of the road, often with a flat tire. It also makes it easier for me to respond to motorists who frequently try to stop me, or yell out their car window, and ask for directions. And it lets me respond to those impatient motorists who are slow to realize that, contrary to what they might believe, they do not in fact own the road.

Dr. John Christiansen is an emeritus professor of sociology at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.