Published: 2008-09-11

Government cancels form asking drivers about mental health

By JEFFREY SIMPSON Staff Reporter

The province has yanked a new application form for getting a driverís licence because of concern over questions it asked about the psychiatric history of applicants.
"We have withdrawn that form," Jamie Muir, the minister responsible for Service Nova Scotia, said Wednesday. "Weíll be going back to the old one."
His department recently changed the application form for people applying for or renewing a driverís licence to indicate if theyíve ever had a "psychiatric or psychological condition."
Those who acknowledged that they had at some point in their lives ó whether it be a bout of depression or ongoing schizophrenia ó were supposed to give more specific details and then have a doctor complete an assessment and provide further information about their medical history.
Mr. Muir said staff at his department failed to check the appropriateness of the wording before putting the new forms into use.
"Quite frankly, there should have been (consultation)," he said. "I apologize for that."
The application forms ó old and new ó are reviewed by department staff and possibly a committee of medical specialists to make recommendations on somebodyís ability to drive safely.
"Itís not trying to discriminate against anyone," Mr. Muir said.
But mental health advocates believed differently and complained.
The old application form, which will be put back into use, asked if people had full use of their eyes, ears, hands and feet, had lost consciousness in the past 10 years or had any other medical conditions that could affect driving, Mr. Muir said.
Some applicants were confused by that, Mr. Muir said.
"What they had tried to do is clarify for those who were filling out the form exactly what was asked for," he said of his staff. "So they decided they would give some examples."
The person in charge of protecting Nova Scotiansí privacy said asking specifically about a personís mental health history was inappropriate.
"They should not be collecting personal information on this basis," said Dulcie McCallum, the provinceís freedom of information and protection of privacy review officer. "Itís completely unnecessary."
That kind of information has historically been used against people, she said.
"It goes kind of to the heart of things that are most intimate and that people want most protected," Ms. McCallum said. "You canít make any assumptions about people. You canít have a policy that automatically creates a different standard for people.
"Thereís no evidence to support that somehow psychiatric challenges make you more or less of a bad driver."
It would be more appropriate to ask if people were taking any prescription medication that could affect their driving, she said.
"That doesnít connect it to any particular illness or disability or historically disadvantaged group and it may be a bona fide question."
David Fraser, a Halifax lawyer who specializes in privacy law, said the province deserves credit for acting quickly to fix its error, but he questioned whether reverting to the old form would solve the problem.
"It sounds to me like an interesting response. Iím not sure if itís to everybodyís benefit if theyíre going back to a form that had previously been confusing.
"Many people wouldnít consider a mental health issue a medical condition."
But the province still needs to do a better job of explaining to the public why it needs certain information, he said.
Michael Deturbide, an associate dean of law at Dalhousie University who also specializes in privacy law, said the province had been asking for more information than it needed.
"Health information is considered to be one of the most sensitive forms of personal information. So only in really the most extreme circumstances should you have to release it."
Unlike some other provinces, no law in Nova Scotia requires doctors to report to the Registry of Motor Vehicles if certain patients are unfit to drive. But physicians are permitted by law to do that and not face legal action for breaching doctor-patient confidentiality.
The law in New Brunswick directs doctors to inform the Registry of Motor Vehicles if patients have any medical condition that might affect their ability to drive safely.
Chrystiane Mallaley, a spokeswoman for the Public Safety Department in New Brunswick, said a more specific question is also posed for people applying for a driverís licence in that province.
"The question is, do you have any mental or physical disabilities which could affect your ability to operate a motor vehicle safely," she said.
There are two boxes for an applicant to check yes or no and a space to provide further details, she said.
"Depending on that response, the individual making the application may need to provide . . . further documentation from their medical doctor if thereís any question about their ability to operate a motor vehicle."
Doctors in Ontario are also by law supposed to divulge whether their patients are unfit to be on the roads.
People applying for driverís licences there are also asked if they have any medical condition or physical disability that may affect their driving, said Bob Nichols, a provincial spokesman.
If the answer is yes, people are required to indicate the condition and then must complete another questionnaire to determine whether they can receive or renew their licence, he said.
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© 2008 The Halifax Herald Limited