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Hand over the keys: getting Japan’s elderly drivers off the road

by

Special To The Japan Times

On Nov. 12, in the city of Tachikawa in western Tokyo, an 83-year-old female driver — while reaching out her car window to insert a parking ticket into the toll gate machine in a hospital parking lot — accidentally pushed down on the accelerator and lost control of her vehicle. It crossed the road and ran down a man and woman, killing them both.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, four days later Prime Minister Shinzo Abe presided over an emergency conference to discuss accidents by elderly drivers, which were described as an “urgent issue.”

There was a time when the elderly made up a preponderant share of Japan’s traffic accident victims. They crossed streets too slowly, veered their bicycles into moving traffic or wore dark clothing that made them hard to see at night, and so on.

However, now the number of drivers aged 65 or older is estimated to be more than 17 million, and license holders aged 75 or older doubled from 2.36 million in 2005 to 4.77 million last year. While overall traffic fatalities have been on the decline, the National Police Agency has noted with alarm that, over the previous decade, the proportion of fatalities involving drivers in the latter age group rose from 7.4 to 12.8 percent.

One type of accident that seems particularly common among elderly drivers is so-called gyakusou (wrong-way driving), such as mistakenly entering an expressway via an exit ramp and driving into the oncoming traffic. Elderly drivers are said to be responsible for around 70 percent of such mishaps, of which about 200 reportedly occur each year.

In one of the more extreme cases, a 77-year-old man on Nov. 20 drove some 20 kilometers in the wrong direction on the Chugoku Expressway.

On Nov. 14 a rash of accidents occured: in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, a 77-year-old driver collided head-on with a light truck, killing one; in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, a 72-year-old driver was arrested fleeing the scene after running down a female pedestrian, who remains hospitalized with serious injuries; and in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, an 82-year-old man rammed a local post office building — fortunately no one was hurt.

“In principle, if an elderly person causes an accident, he or she is considered responsible,” attorney Hisato Fujiwara is quoted as saying in Friday magazine (Dec. 2). “But should the person involved be suffering from a cognitive disorder such as senile dementia, then the responsibility falls on a family member or appointed guardian. In the event of a fatality, the liability can run from several tens of million yen upwards to ¥100 million,” he adds. “If found guilty of negligent driving resulting in death, a sentence of seven years imprisonment or a shorter sentence plus a fine of up to ¥1 million is possible.”

The license issuing authorities have not exactly been standing still. From June 2009 the requirements for elderly drivers were further heightened, requiring a test for cognitive functions (e.g., naming the date, day of week and time; drawing the image of a clock; and a short-term memory test).

An English-language example of the Cognitive Impairment Screening Test can be found here: www.npa.go.jp/annai/license_renewal/ninti/index2.htm.

The recent spate of accidents has given new impetus to encourage the elderly to voluntarily surrender their licenses. In 2015 some 270,000 did so, but that, however, only amounted to an estimated 2 percent of the total number of license holders in that demographic.

For the reasonable outlay of ¥1,000, a person who decides to relinquish his or her license can be issued a nondriver ID card, called unten keireki shomeisho (driving history certificate), which can be utilized as a photo ID. In some localities, showing the card also entitles a bearer to certain services, ranging from senior discounts to taxi vouchers and free delivery of goods purchased at department stores.

In the meantime, more ideas to reduce accidents are being proposed.

“As the driving capabilities of elderly people can decline rapidly, it might be a good idea to require them to undergo a test every month,” Dr. Kaechang Park, professor at Kochi University of Technology and an authority on the problems of elderly drivers, tells Shukan Taishu magazine (Dec. 5). Park conducted experiments in which elderly subjects underwent MRI brain scans. The findings indicated those involved in accidents had decreased density in their cerebral white matter, a condition known as Leukoaraiosis, six times greater than those who did not.

It goes without saying that if everyone above age 65 were to abruptly give up their vehicles, the impact on the economy would be profound. The Japanese Automobile Manufacturers’ Association calculates that at least 8.3 percent of the total Japanese workforce is involved in some aspect of motor vehicle production, sales, servicing or operation.

In the short term, more elderly drivers may be persuaded to give up driving if they can be convinced it’s economically practical to use alternative means of transportation.

“Due to the characteristics of their locales and their customary practices, some people may feel that driving a car is ‘an absolute necessity,’ ” an unnamed automotive journalist is quoted as saying in Shukan Taishu. “But if they cause an accident, they risk losing everything. And what’s more, if they use what they would otherwise pay for car maintenance and upkeep and ride in taxis instead, there’s a good chance the financial disadvantages would be minimal.”

The best option of all might be to just let the cars have their own way: Once models with automated driving functions arrive on the market, they will almost certainly find strong demand among Japan’s elderly.