Japan opens new roads for handicapped with specially designed vehicles

Kozue Yoshimori received her driver's license recently, passing her test the first time. This would scarcely be a remarkable event - except that the young office worker has no arms. Today, despite her handicap, she weaves her way through chaotic city traffic as confidently as any other driver.

Two developments have helped put Kozue on the highway:

1. Japan changed its road traffic law last July to permit the licensing of the physically handicapped.

2. National car manufacturers are developing special vehicles for this market.

Nissan, for example, has just launched a 1.6- and a 1.8-liter version of its ''Lively'' model, in which the controls can be tailored to the special needs of handicapped people. This Nissan prototype is now in use at a special driving school at the government-run national rehabilitation center at Tokorozawa, about 50 miles from Tokyo.

Here, the latest in robotics and computer sciences are being utilized to bring a new dimension - such as computers that can read to the blind - into the lives of the physically and mentally handicapped. The center, opened three years ago, symbolizes changing attitudes toward the handicapped in this country.

''Japanese generally have tended to feel pity for the handicapped, the disadvantaged in their midst, but not really thought of them in terms of being useful citizens,'' a center spokesman says. ''This rehabilitation center's prime aim is to change that attitude, and putting people like Kozue on the roads like everyone else is an important part of that process.''

The new Nissan car tries to cater to the very different needs and abilities of handicapped people by ingenious variations on the normal vehicle's controls. The right foot opens and closes the car door through a pipe fitted to the interior.

The door lock is manipulated with the shoulder. Ignition and starting buttons are pressed with the left foot, which also controls the steering wheel through a large floor pedal. The car is guided by rotating the plate horizontally in the desired direction.

The transmission is automatic and the select lever is operated by the right foot. Another device allows the parking brake to be manipulated with the left thigh. (In Japan, vehicles are driven on the left).

The turn-signal switches are located in the headrest and operated by pressing with the back of the head. Pressure of the right foot on a large plate sounds the horn.

Special ''run flat'' tires have been installed, considering the difficulty of changing punctured tires without use of the arms, which allow the car to continue running for another 60 miles at a steady speed without damage.

The 1.6-liter version sells for about $3,500 more than a conventional model, while the 1.8-liter type is about $4,200 more expensive.

A delighted Kozue Yoshimori says: ''When I visited Europe several years ago, I saw other thalidomide victims driving cars, and I knew I had to do the same.

''Technically, it seems a bit complicated at first, trying to remember to wiggle your head or your hip, or turn your foot this way and that. But once you master the techniques, it is no more different than driving an ordinary car.''

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