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Oregon aims to keep deaf drivers safe during traffic stops

April 26, 2021 GMT

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A deaf driver is pulled over by the police. The officer approaches the car. The driver doesn’t respond to commands.

The situation escalates, sometimes with fatal results. It’s something that deaf people worry about.

“They are scared to communicate with law enforcement officers because they are worried they would be shot in case they ‘act’ as if they are not listening to the police officers’ instructions,” said Steven Brown, vice president of Oregon Association of the Deaf.

The Oregon Senate unanimously passed a bill Monday to keep such situations from developing. It was earlier passed by the House, also unanimously. It allows a person who is deaf or hard of hearing to have that noted on their vehicle’s registration and on their driver’s license.

“The intent behind the measure is to provide law enforcement with this information before they come in contact with an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing,” Lindsay Baker, assistant director of the Oregon Department of Transportation, testified in support of the bill.

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If Gov. Kate Brown signs the bill into law, law enforcement officers would be able to learn — before walking up to the vehicle — that a driver is deaf as they run the license plate through their database.

The action by Oregon lawmakers comes amid heightened awareness in the nation of how interactions with police can go horribly wrong.

In 2016, a North Carolina state trooper shot to death Daniel Harris, who was deaf, after an attempted traffic stop.

“There have been too many incidents with tragic consequences between law enforcement officers and deaf people,” Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, told NBC News after Harris was killed.

Like Oregon, some states have taken action.

Last year, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law bills designed to improve police interactions with individuals with autism or other communication barriers. Starting in July, the new laws will allow them to have a notice associated with their driver’s license, registration or state ID cards, to alert police of a possible difficulty in communicating.

In Ohio, people with a diagnosed communication disability can voluntarily enroll in a database to inform law enforcement of their disability.

“We want everyone to know about this Ohio law and how it supports the safety of people in our community who have challenges communicating,” Lt. Governor Jon Husted said last year.

David Barovian, who is deaf and from Hillsboro, Oregon, told lawmakers here that having a notation about his deafness will make him feel safer.

“This would help a police officer or an emergency person know that I cannot hear them,” Barovian said. “It would make me feel less worried if I were stopped by a police officer for any reason.”

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Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky