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Tougher dementia checks for Japan’s elderly drivers come into force

JIJI

The nation’s revised Road Traffic Act came into force Sunday, introducing tougher tests for drivers aged 75 or older to detect signs of dementia in an effort prevent traffic accidents.

Under the law, elderly drivers will be required to undergo 30-minute cognitive tests to measure memory and judgment if they commit any of 18 traffic violations, such as running a red light or driving on the wrong side of the road. In addition, they will have to renew their licenses every three years.

Drivers that test positive for possible dementia will need to undergo further examination by a doctor.

With the increase in frequency of such checks and the testing, police hope to prevent future accidents, officials said.

Dementia sufferers are not allowed to drive. The National Police Agency expects that about 50,000 drivers annually will need to undergo medical examinations after the cognitive tests. About 30 percent are expected be diagnosed with dementia and have their licenses revoked or suspended, according to the agency.

With prefectural police departments calling on drivers to relinquish their licenses if they feel uneasy about driving, authorities face the challenge of helping the elderly who lose their daily means of getting around find new modes of transportation.

Previously, drivers aged 75 or older did not have to undergo cognitive tests other than when they renewed their licenses. Even if the tests raised suspicions they may be suffering from dementia, drivers were not required to take medical examinations unless they committed a specific traffic violation.

In 2016, licenses were revoked or suspended for 1,844 elderly drivers, according to preliminary data. Under the new system, about 15,000 drivers a year, 8.1 times the 2016 level, are expected to have their licenses revoked or suspended after medical checkups.

The police have secured the cooperation of about 3,100 doctors across the country who will be available to provide a diagnosis should the cognitive tests show signs of possible dementia.

The revised law also reformed the mandatory 150-minute lecture given to elderly drivers who renew their licenses. The time will be shortened to 120 minutes for drivers found through the testing to be free of dementia, but expanded to 180 minutes for those who show signs of dementia or are suspected of having suffered a decline in their cognitive abilities.

Drivers will also need to take the lecture if their scores drop while taking the extraordinary tests carried out after committing one of the specified traffic violations.

The number of people aged 75 or older who have driver’s licenses stood at 5.13 million at the end of 2016, having doubled over the past decade. A record 160,000 such drivers voluntarily surrendered their licenses last year, while the number of traffic accidents caused by elderly drivers remained almost unchanged at 459.

Worried about a possible increase of such accidents, the agency is discussing a range of countermeasures with experts.