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Discord over driving ability tests for stroke and other patients posing challenge

Hideyuki Baba, far left, and Yokaichi Driving School's Yoshio Taniguchi, far right, depart for Baba's road test evaluation at the Yokaichi Driving School in Higashiomi, Shiga Prefecture, on Aug. 24, 2017. (Mainichi)

When it comes to certifying those who have completed rehabilitation after a stroke or other serious illnesses or injuries to drive again, medical institutions and driving schools are not seeing eye-to-eye with police, raising questions over proper testing and safety precautions.

    The police use a special aptitude test to provide official certification of individuals' approval to get back behind the wheel. However, among driving schools, there is concern that this test alone cannot accurately identify problems in a person's ability to drive, and some schools require a patient to take the police aptitude test before they even hit roads outside of the facility. The National Police Agency (NPA) deemed conducting road tests to evaluate drivers' abilities in the rehabilitation process legal, but this may change.

    "The roads were just as scary as I thought. I was nervous," said 50-year-old Hideyuki Baba, exhausted. It is the end of August, and he has just completed his road test at the Yokaichi Driving School in Higashiomi, Shiga Prefecture. Baba collapsed from bleeding in his brain last February, leaving the right half of his body paralyzed. However, he has recovered after rehabilitation at Omi Onsen Hospital. He expressed the wish to begin driving again in May so that he can return to work.

    After being screened at the hospital to determine if he had any "higher brain dysfunction," he began training using a driving simulator. After that, he was referred to Yokaichi Driving School -- a hospital partner -- for his driving to be evaluated. The school itself is actively supporting those seeking to start driving again, such as introducing a device that evaluates driving ability.

    However, concerning Baba's abilities to get back on the road, there was a slight difference in opinion. The hospital requested that Baba complete a driving evaluation not only on the grounds of the driving school, but also on the road, before going to the drivers' license center to take the special aptitude test with the police. This is because the aptitude test is carried out under the direction of a medical certificate from a doctor, and the hospital wanted a general decision about how well Baba could drive on regular roads, before penning the certificate for the police aptitude test.

    However, the driving school wanted the results of the aptitude test -- the decision of the drivers' license center -- before they let Baba drive on regular roads outside the facility.

    In the end, Baba only drove within the boundaries of the school in July. The medical certification was issued based on the results of his driving there, and he took the special aptitude test at the drivers' license center in mid-August.

    According to Baba, the center did not test his driving skills, and allowed him to drive again without many restrictions after a simple question and answer session. As for his driving ability, the center reportedly relied on the judgment of the driving school.

    After that, at the end of August, the Yokaichi Driving School began evaluating Baba on regular road tests. He was given a warning about failures to stop, such as going slightly over the line at stop signs.

    "Driving on the road is different from at a driving school -- you have to adapt to other drivers and the environment," said Omi Onsen Hospital occupational therapist Takashi Okuno. "It's important to make decisions that include data from these road tests. We have to identify anyone who could be a danger to others." If the police aptitude test is conducted while in the middle of the process of helping former patients start driving again, there is the danger that former patients will get back on the road with other drivers without anyone having a full grasp of their actual driving ability, Okuno said.

    The NPA License Division requested that patients seek driving aptitude consultations even before taking the aptitude test, and decided that conducting road tests beforehand as part of supporting patients to get back on the road is not illegal.

    While the head of Yokaichi Driving School's people and cars learning center Yoshio Taniguchi hopes to make more use of the Shiga Prefectural Police's driving aptitude consultation services in the future, he still lamented the NPA's decision. "It would be safer if they actually provided a guideline as a government institution," he said.

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