YOKOHAMA – Monday’s fatal crash near Tokyo involving a 90-year-old driver again highlighted the problem of elderly motorists in a rapidly aging society.
Kumiko Saito was arrested on suspicion of negligence causing death and bodily injury as the car she drove in Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, hit four pedestrians, killing one.
Given the nation’s rapidly graying population, police introduced tougher screenings in March last year, requiring those who are 75 or older to take a cognitive test when they renew their license or when they are ticketed for certain traffic violations.
There were 418 fatal crashes last year caused by drivers aged 75 or older, including those who had not yet taken the cognitive test. As of the end of 2017, Japan had 5.4 million drivers in that age bracket, according to police data.
Those diagnosed with dementia must revoke their licenses, while police have been urging elderly drivers to voluntarily give up their permits.
Between March 2017 and the end of that year, some 1.72 million drivers aged 75 or older underwent the cognitive test. Of them, at least 46,000, or 2.6%, were judged as possibly having dementia, the National Police Agency said.
The exam doesn’t necessarily catch all of those who lack the ability to drive, said Park Kaechang, visiting professor at the Kochi University of Technology. Because people age in different ways, it is “necessary to conduct regular checks and track brain health to ensure that countermeasures customized for each individual are applied,” rather than applying a blanket solution to all seniors, he added.
According to the police, Saito left a car repair shop in her vehicle and went out on the road at about 10:55 a.m. Monday. Her vehicle slowed down in front of a crossing at an intersection before running into the people at the crossing and mounting the sidewalk. The police quoted an eyewitness as saying the traffic light for pedestrians at the crossing was green at the time. Saito allegedly told the police that she “knew it was a red light” at the intersection, but she “attempted to go through,” believing nobody was crossing. The pedestrian who died was identified as Hisae Matsuura, a 57-year-old Chigasaki resident. In addition to the four pedestrians, two people were taken to hospital after witnessing the accident and feeling ill.
Saito had passed a cognitive function test in December and renewed her driver’s license in March. Her son, 62, said his mother developed a knee problem about 10 years ago and drove once or twice a week to go shopping or to the hospital. He said he had thought that she was fine to continue driving because she hadn’t caused a serious collision, with only a minor accident from several years ago on her recent driving record.