Welcome to the World of Traffic Psychology - Finland
In this blog post, we take you on a journey through the world of traffic psychology. Have you ever wondered where traffic psychology diagnostics even exist, and how they are done elsewhere? Take off with us today to Finland.
In Finland, the question of whether someone has the ability to drive came up decades ago. Compared to other countries, however, it was brought to the forefront primarily by neuropsychologists, who already assessed patient groups suffering a stroke, brain injury or degenerative neurological illness. Assessing their driving ability and the need for rehabilitation question was a logical question for them, as it is an important requirement to be able to return to work. Even today, almost every neurological patient, who returns to work or study, goes through a neuropsychological examination in order to find out, if there are any issues affecting their ability to manage the same requirements as before. On the other hand, some other highly relevant groups are not referred to the assessment: people with substance abuse, heart and pulmonary diseases, and diabetes, for example.
Based on this history, psychological driving assessment has been and still is strongly a neuropsychological and cognitive issue. A patient who ends up to a neurological department, rarely leaves without some comment on driving ability or a period of driving ban due to the current neurological illness.
A person with a health-related issue of driving ability usually refers to their own public health care unit. Alternatively, it is also possible to ask a private clinic for a statement. If a specialists’ statement is needed, the issue is usually referred to a hospital-level professional. Most neuropsychologists work at public hospitals and conduct driving assessments as a part of their work there. Some neuropsychologists also work in the private health care sector, but are not specialized in driving-related assessments.
In Finland, most health care services are run on public health care, especially when hospital-level care is needed. Public health care clinics are available in every community, and hospitals on county-level. There are five university-level hospitals, who each serve as a central hospital in their region and are responsible for diagnosing and treating special or rare health issues, which are too specific for local units.
(Neuro)Psychologists use a variety of well-proven and standardized cognitive psychological tests to assess the fitness to drive. Tests of visualization, visual reasoning and problem solving, attention and executive functions are commonly used. Some centers use paper-pencil versions, some digital-based methods like the Vienna Testsystem. As there are no official recommendations which tests should be used, each psychologist can work independently.
How to become a (traffic) psychologist
The education of psychologists in Finland is considered to be of high quality. Psychology as a main subject can be studied at six universities. A masters’ degree entitles to work as a clinical psychologist, as the education always includes clinical courses as well as a 5-month traineeship.
Psychologists in general are very well employed. A psychologist can have a successful career without further diplomas, however, annual courses on different topics are recommended. There are extensive specialization degrees on six different fields (clinical mental health, children and youth, neuropsychology, health psychology, work and organization psychology, and psychotherapy), each of which lasts three years and is offered by universities. Standardized courses on traffic psychology are rare, which leads to a serious lack of specialization possibilities. Sometimes, shorter seminars on traffic psychology are offered, however, most psychologists interested in the subject learn the tricks on the job from more experienced colleagues.
There is a handful of psychologists, who can be called traffic psychologists by means that they are working with traffic-related issues full-time. Some of them are freelancers working on different projects, others are employed in traffic-related agencies or authorities, and some on research. However, they are not working with patients or individual drivers in general.
Since 2004, all physicians have not only the right but also the obligation to report to the driver licensing authority if a person is unfit to drive for medical reasons. Official guidelines recommend that fitness to drive should be assessed at every medical visit, not just when a patient specifically requests it. Health care professionals therefore theoretically have the power to assess fitness to drive at any time if necessary, although such assessments are generally conducted less frequently and are less extensive than the law would allow.
Overall, the driving fitness assessment of patients is fairly well done in Finland. However, there is one non-patient population that poses a risk to traffic: the traffic offenders.
Currently, there is no medical system for them in place, which is clearly a weakness in Finnish traffic safety guidance and the field of traffic psychology. An offender is met by juridical consequences, but neither a psychological assessment nor intervention is done.
In recent years, there has been an increased awareness of the risks to fitness to drive on other than a neurological basis. For example, additional attention is paid to young drivers, which has led to youngsters with developmental disorders, such as attention and hyperactivity syndromes, intellectual disabilities or severe behavioral or psychiatric problems being referred to psychologists more often than before.
As a result of this development, psychologists from other disciplines are also becoming increasingly involved in the assessment of fitness to drive. Interest in this topic is spreading, and it can be assumed that new aspects such as the role of personality or the approach of traffic maturity for the assessment of fitness to drive will soon come into focus.
About the author
Sari Kukkamaa is behavioral sciences specialist in the traffic accident investigation group in Oulu area, and member of the Traffic Psychology Committee in the Finnish Psychology Association.
She is s a clinical neuropsychologist at the Oulu University Hospital and works with adults with mainly neurological issues. She has experience in cinical assessment of fitness to drive since 2004.