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Red light on driver's ed courses at Yokosuka, Atsugi means no new licenses

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Getting your driver’s license is “just something 16-year-old Americans do,” said Carl’Meisha Wourman, who happens to be 16.

So when the Nile C. Kinnick High School student heard that her car window of opportunity was about to shut, she shifted into high gear and signed up for what will be the last first-timers’ driver education class at Yokosuka Naval Base.

Yokosuka and Naval Air Facility Atsugi, in accord with a U.S. Forces Japan directive, are putting the brakes on conducting courses for first-time drivers for personal vehicles. USFJ issued the directive citing accident statistics for first-time drivers in Japan. Atsugi’s classes already are finished. Yokosuka’s last class is April 13.

This leaves military, civilians and spouses who come to Japan without a U.S. license and want to drive a personal vehicle with few options: go to the States and take a driver education class or get a license before you leave the United States.

“This impacts people, young and old,” said Lucky Hawkins, Yokosuka base safety officer. “But it’s the regulation and we’re going to comply.”

The safety office issues about 5,000 licenses a year, with 5 percent going to first-time drivers, Hawkins said.

Many are dependent spouses who have years of driving experience in other countries but don’t meet the USFJ requirement of having a current operator’s permit issued by any U.S. state or territory or the District of Columbia, an international driver’s permit, a valid government of Japan operator’s permit or written proof that they have successfully completed a certified formal driving course.

USFJ issued a directive in 2003 mandating this prerequisite for all military-sponsored personnel wanting a license to drive a personal vehicle. The requirement was to be phased in over two years with a completion date of July 2005. An extension was given through April 15.

However, Yokosuka could not meet the new USFJ definition of a “certified formal driving course,” which calls for accreditation through Department of Defense Educational Activity, American Automobile Association or American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association. The course must include 45 hours of instruction, six of which must be hands-on training, Hawkins said.

The safety office added classes to get as many people as possible through before the deadline, said Sam Long, a Yokosuka base driving and motorcycle safety instructor, but “all of the classes are filled now.”

All military-sponsored personnel who meet the current operator’s permit requirement still can get a license after attending the mandatory session during the Area Orientation Brief and passing both a written and road test. Active-duty military can get a first-time license for government work.

But 15-year-old T.J. Jones said he’s pretty disappointed. The new requirement means more time before he can get behind the wheel like his stateside friends.

“If I could drive for a couple years in Japan, that will only make me a better driver when I go back to the States,” Jones said. “I just wanted the experience.”

And then there’s the tradition.

“Driving is something you look forward to when you’re 16,” even if it can be on-base only, as the legal driving age in Japan is 18, Wourman said. “You see the car in the driveway and you just want to get behind the wheel, even if it’s just to run to the Exchange.”


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