A new statewide program will provide special "safety communication visors" for deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers to put inside their car and display when they're stopped by police.
The campaign aims to prevent the kind of problems that can escalate when a deaf driver can't hear an officer's commands or can't read his or her lips because of a shining flashlight.
"It can prevent a communication breakdown," said Rebecca Rosenthal, executive director of the Kansas Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. "It's rather simple if both parties remain calm and not let the frustration build up."
It's an issue that occasionally leads to conflict between officers and deaf motorists they encounter. A Graham County man is suing the Kansas Highway Patrol, claiming he was physically mistreated by a trooper who grew upset with his noncompliance in an encounter on the Kansas Turnpike near Emporia.
Christopher E. Zvolanek, who is legally deaf, claims in his lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court that on Dec. 15, 2004, he tried to report aggressive driving by three cattle trucks to a turnpike toll collector. He claims he asked for a pen and paper to write down his complaint, but the collector denied his request and called a trooper, who arrested him.
Zvolanek, who is represented by the Lawrence firm Stevens & Brand, alleges that under the state's policies, the deaf are "treated as criminals instead of disabled or handicapped persons."
The defendants' version, however, is that Zvolanek refused to pay his toll, and that he never requested reasonable accommodations.
For years, the state has been providing deaf drivers with 4-by-4-inch stickers to place on the back of their vehicle, but Rosenthal said some were concerned about their privacy and safety. The new, reflective, 11-inch-long signs can be tucked in the driver's side visor and either flipped down or displayed in a window during a traffic stop - although the agency is warning drivers not to put them under the seat or in the glove compartment.
Drivers must complete an official form before they can receive a sign.
In Lawrence, brochures about the program appeared earlier this summer outside the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. Rosenthal said they're also being placed in motor-vehicle division offices around the state.
So far, fewer than 100 of the signs have been sent out to drivers, and police statewide haven't yet been trained on the program.
"We haven't really reached out yet," said Rosenthal, a Lawrence resident. "My next step is to begin training law enforcement."
Johnson County Sheriff's Department spokesman Tom Erickson said the program sounded like a good idea.
"It would allow you to take measures a little more quickly - to either get an interpreter or get the pen and paper out so you can start communicating with them," he said.
Lawrence Police spokeswoman Kim Murphree said officers generally communicate in writing when they encounter someone who is deaf, although the agency also keeps a list of 15 American Sign Language interpreters.