LONG ROAD TO EQUALITY

Disabled drivers call for more specialized options

by Setsuko Kamiya

With the nation’s population aging rapidly and disabled people leading more active lives, Japanese automakers have turned much of their attention to introducing specially designed “welfare vehicles” in recent years.

Elderly and physically disabled people traveling as passengers in these vehicles appear to be satisfied with their design.

But automakers, along with the government, have a long way to go before they can meet the needs of disabled drivers.

Welfare vehicles are roughly defined as versions of cars or vans that are equipped with devices to help disabled people drive and get in and out of them easily.

Yet most of these kinds of vehicles currently on the market are designed to help passengers, not drivers.

Although the welfare car segment of the auto market remains small, its sales volume is rising sharply.

According to the Japan Auto Manufacturers Association, domestic carmakers sold 29,005 welfare vehicles — including cars and buses — in the year to March, marking a 19.3 percent increase from a year earlier.

The figure was the highest since the industry group began counting welfare car sales in 1992.

JAMA estimates that, in the same fiscal year, another 5,000 cars were taken to car engineering companies to be converted into welfare vehicles.

Sales of these vehicles, especially cars equipped with ramps and lifts for wheelchair users, have been on the increase since 1995.

Cars equipped with passenger seats that rotate at the push of a button have also become popular.

Automakers say these cars are mainly designed for women, as surveys have shown that housewives are the main carers for elderly or disabled family members.

Toyota Motor Corp., which commands more than 60 percent of the welfare vehicle market, began manufacturing welfare-purpose vans in the mid 1960s.

Toyota gradually began to expand its product lineup in the early 1980s, when the United Nations started its crusade to raise public awareness regarding disabled people, according to Yurika Motoyoshi, a spokeswoman for the firm’s welfare vehicles operations.

By 1993, Toyota had started making welfare versions of almost all its models, she said.

Until the mid 1990s, most of Toyota’s customers for such vehicles were hospitals or other facilities for the elderly or the disabled.

This trend had changed by around 1997, however, when individual users accounted for about 70 percent of the firm’s customer base.

Increasing demand for welfare cars has led automakers to expand their advertising campaigns and make greater price-reduction efforts, said Mamoru Hoshino, an official in charge of welfare vehicles at JAMA.

In 1997, JAMA formed a working group to research the use of welfare vehicles and relevant tax breaks in Japan. The group also studied the welfare vehicle situation in other countries.

Hoshino said the demand for welfare cars will continue to rise for some years, but added that there is still a lack of awareness about the vehicles among people who need them.

Automakers plan to put some models on exhibition at the Tokyo Motor Show in October.

Manufacturers are also beginning to expand the number of dealers that sell welfare models.

Dealers are generally reluctant to sell them, however, because cars of this kind account for such a tiny segment of the market, Hoshino said.

Nevertheless, some dealers in the used-car market are already treating welfare vehicles as an independent category.

Proto Corp., for example, a company that provides information on used cars on the Internet, created a welfare car section on its Web site in February.

“Because automakers were extending their lineups and a market was being shaped, we thought it was necessary to have this section,” a firm official said.

The Japan Auto Appraisal Institute, which sets reference criteria for dealers to assess the value of used cars, has been experimenting with special criteria for welfare vehicles at some shops since April.

Before this, used welfare vehicles were assessed in the same way as ordinary cars and were often priced at less than their fair values due to the cost of converting them back to a normal configuration.

An official of the appraisal institute said this special criteria, which will be formally adopted next April, will help put more used welfare cars on the market.

Meanwhile, the number of physically disabled people who drive is on the increase, with many of them still experiencing considerable inconvenience.

Special permits issued to people driving cars equipped with driving aids numbered 152,187 in 1990, according to the National Police Agency. This number had risen to 190,170 in 1999, the agency said.

Although automakers say they are providing more and more models for disabled drivers, some users say they want more user-friendly vehicles.

Keiji Watanabe, 57, who has been driving cars equipped with driving assistance devices since he was 21, said cars for the physically disabled should be customized to meet individuals’ needs.

“Detailed customization is necessary, and that can only be done by local engineering ventures that can meet the needs of individuals,” he said.

He added that major automakers should provide financial and technical support for small firms that convert cars and also listen more to disabled people.

Watanabe drives a customized van that he imported from the United States. The design of the van, which is equipped with a joystick, enables him to take control of the vehicle without getting out of his wheelchair.

He remarked that the van is much handier than a Japanese car he owns.

“A wheelchair is the feet of a disabled person and it’s such a pain having to get in and out,” he said.

Watanabe also said that although more disabled people are willing to drive and get around on their own, the high cost of modification gets in their way.

He urged the government to provide more financial support for modifications.

“Both the government and businesses should recognize that there is a large investment opportunity in the welfare sector,” he said.

With enough financial aid available, people the government currently considers to be “tax-eaters” will become “taxpayers,” he said, because they will buy more cars and partake in various activities.