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TOO OLD TO DRIVE?

Both pressure and perks used to coax seniors into giving up driving licenses

by

Staff Writer

These days have seen frequent news reports of elderly drivers losing control of their vehicles, slamming into stores, running over pedestrians and traveling in the wrong direction on expressways.

In one case, on the morning of Oct. 28, an 87-year-old man in Yokohama driving a small truck plowed into a group of children walking to school, killing a first-grader and injuring four others.

Masaichi Goda, who was arrested on suspicion of negligent driving leading to death and injury, had left home in Yokohama in a truck loaded with garbage the day before, and drove across Kanagawa and Tokyo all day, passing his home many times. He reportedly told investigators he “doesn’t remember where and how I drove,” leading them to suspect he has dementia.

The Yokohama case was followed by two fatal accidents involving drivers in their 80s last month. In Shimotsuke, Tochigi Prefecture, an 84-year-old man crashed his car into a hospital entrance, killing one pedestrian and injuring two others.

Two days later, a car driven by a 83-year-old woman struck and killed two people on a sidewalk near a hospital in western Tokyo. The police suspect she mistook the gas pedal for the brakes.

Beginning next March, the government plans to start enforcing a revision to the Road Traffic Law that imposes a stricter cognitive skills tests on drivers 75 and older. While the recent string of accidents has prompted calls from the public for the government to introduce tougher measures, including a blanket ban on driving after a certain age, some experts disagree with this strategy.

Here are the questions and answers on traffic accidents involving elderly drivers and measures to prevent them:

Are elderly drivers becoming more dangerous?

It’s hard to say.

One measure, the number of accidents per 100,000 drivers, has been on a downward trend across all age groups over the past decade, including the 60 to 69, 70 to 79, and 80 and over groups.

In 2015, teenage drivers (including motorcyclists under 18) had the highest ratio of accidents, causing 1,888.8 accidents per 100,000, followed by 1,144.9 accidents in the 20 to 24 group and 814.1 accidents in the 25 to 29 group.

Seniors followed after that, with those over 85 causing 811.3 accidents per 100,000 drivers, and those 80 to 84 causing 740.0 accidents per 100,000.

Even in terms of absolute number of accidents, those caused by elderly drivers do not constitute the highest percentage.

What about deadly accidents?

Figures show that elderly drivers are more prone to causing fatal accidents.

In 2015, those over 85 had the highest ratio of deadly accidents per 100,000 drivers at 18.17. This group was followed by those aged 16 to 19 (including motorcyclists) at 14.37, those 80 to 84 (11.53), and those 75 to 79 (6.99).

In absolute numbers, those over 85 only accounted for 95 of the 3,585 deaths, presumably because this pool of drivers is small.

Are authorities taking action?

For years, the National Police Agency has been calling on elderly drivers who aren’t confident in their driving abilities any more to voluntarily surrender their licenses.

Last year, some 270,000 drivers over 65 relinquished their licenses. That’s about 1.5 percent of the 17 million drivers in that category.

To nudge more seniors to follow suit, the police and municipal governments are teaming up with businesses to offer a variety of discounts and other types of perks.

In Tokyo, for example, seniors who surrender their licenses can get discounts at moving companies, collect slightly higher interest on their savings at some credit unions, and get 10 percent off their tabs at premier hotel restaurants in the metropolis. Stores are following suit. (For a full Japanese list in the Tokyo area, see jtim.es/DqAi306EQAq)

In another example, the Aichi Prefectural Police recently agreed with Nagoya-based ramen chain Sugakiya to offer discounts to elderly drivers who relinquish their licenses. Seniors can buy a set meal that includes ramen, rice with toppings and a salad for ¥500 instead of ¥590 at any of the chain’s 176 outlets in the prefecture if they show proof that they turned in their licenses.

The government is also beefing up measures to detect those with potential driving problems by revising the traffic law. The changes take effect on March 12.

What will the revised traffic law require?

The law will refer elderly drivers to medical doctors for dementia checks more often.

If the drivers show signs that memory and judgment are faltering, they must see a doctor. If they are diagnosed with dementia, their driver’s licenses will be either revoked or suspended.

Any elderly drivers caught breaking traffic rules will be required to take an extra cognitive function test. Elderly drivers must take this test every three years, when they renew their licenses. Under the revision, however, seniors caught for serious traffic violations, such as running red lights or stop signs, will have to take an extra cognitive test immediately.

But Heii Arai, chairman of the Japanese Psychogeriatric Society and a leading dementia specialist, cautioned against simply linking a dementia diagnosis to license revocation.

Arai voiced fears that doctors could soon be exploited to justify police attempts to revoke people’s licenses when it is the police’s, not the doctors’, responsibility to determine whether someone can actually drive well enough to receive and renew a license.

“(Lower) driving skills and having dementia are not synonymous,” Arai told The Japan Times. “There are a lot of problematic drivers who don’t have dementia. Likewise, there are people with types of dementia that can be treated.”

Arai’s doctor group released a statement on Nov. 15 saying that, while the revision is a step in the right direction, the government should also ensure that driver’s license revocation will not lower the quality of life for seniors and their kin.

At the same time, the organization called for urgent implementation of safety measures, such as guard rails on school routes, gates to keep drivers from entering the wrong lane on highway ramps, and equipment to prevent drivers from mistaking the gas pedal for the brake.

Is relinquishing licenses a realistic option for all seniors?

Surrendering one’s license can be difficult for seniors in rural or remote areas where buses — the only means of public transportation — come by about once an hour or less.

An Okayama University survey of 3,250 people in the prefecture who surrendered their driver’s licenses in 2010 and 2012 found that those in the mountainous region tend to hold on to them much longer than those in cities and suburbs, with men more likely to do so than women.

The prefecture issues a card to those 65 or older who give up their licenses. The card makes them eligible for bus, train and taxi discounts, as well as discounts at 1,800 retailers.

“Many of the female drivers haven’t driven for years and have few reservations about giving up their licenses, whereas men are often the only remaining driver in the family and therefore find it hard to relinquish them,” said Seiji Hashimoto, associate professor of urban traffic planning at the university’s graduate school.

Hashimoto added that, in the future, when driverless, autonomous shuttle buses become widely available, more people will feel enticed to give up their cars. But during the next 10 to 20 years, the predicament will continue, he predicted.

“Right now, even though some local governments are trying to subsidize public transportation, it’s hard to find people who want to work as bus and taxi drivers because they see a future where drivers will be extinct. Nobody wants to work in a field that will disappear in 10 or 20 years.”

As such, policymakers should be more flexible in meeting the transport needs of residents, he said, adding that one way to do this would be to let school buses take elderly people to places such as hospitals.