Japan considers replicating measures taken overseas amid concern over elderly drivers

Kyodo

Following a fatal crash in Kanagawa Prefecture involving a 90-year-old driver, elderly drivers are once again being urged to voluntarily give up their licenses.

But drivers unfit for the road are unlikely to give up their permits unless they have other ways of getting to grocery stores and hospitals, and the government is now looking at measures taken in other countries — especially Switzerland — for ways to secure transportation methods for elderly people who can no longer drive safely.

In the May 28 crash in Chigasaki, which killed one pedestrian and injured three others, Kumiko Saito said she had driven through the red light believing nobody was crossing. Saito passed a cognitive function test in December and renewed her driver’s license in March.

She had said she would give up the license “sometime in the near future but it dragged on,” Saito’s son said, expressing his regret. Saito hurt her knee about 10 years ago and drove once or twice a week, primarily to go shopping or to the hospital, her son said. He had thought that it was fine for her to continue driving in the neighborhood because she hadn’t caused a serious accident.

In rural Japan, where public transportation is poor, the problem is even more serious. In such regions, the transport ministry has been promoting alternative means of mobility by allowing cargo vehicles to carry passengers since 2017. The ministry has also pushed for increased use of shared taxi rides, while local governments have subsidized elderly passengers’ taxi fees and improved the efficiency of bus services for hospital visitors.

In order to reduce accidents involving senior drivers, other countries facing a similar situation have introduced measures such as limiting where and when an elderly person can drive, while also offering ride-hailing services through nonprofit organizations.

In Geneva, a 34-year-old university lecturer said he thinks allowing the elderly to drive is dangerous, but he cannot decide where he stands on the issue because seniors are also in need of cars to get around.

His 84-year-old grandmother, who lives nearby, continues to drive, having passed a health checkup. When they had a family discussion before she renewed her driver’s license, she told them that she would be fine.

In Switzerland, drivers do not need to renew their license, but after turning 70 they are required to undergo athletic, eyesight and hearing tests every two years. Those judged to have difficulty driving at night are only allowed to drive during the day and people deemed to be unable to operate manual transmission cars must drive automatic transmission vehicles. The areas where a person can drive can also be restricted.

The mountainous European country is a tough place to live without access to a car.

Public transportation is less prevalent outside of major cities and, due to high personnel costs, home delivery services are almost nonexistent. One local journalist says people simply cannot live without cars in the countryside.

Japan’s National Police Agency — using Switzerland as an example — is mulling a system that would limit where and when elderly drivers can drive.

In the United States, a country that’s known for its car-oriented society, fatal accidents involving senior drivers are on the rise. The number of fatalities in crashes involving at least one driver age 65 and above was 7,256 in 2016, up 22 percent from 2012, according to a report released in March by TRIP, a nonprofit transportation research group based in Washington.

New York Foundation for Senior Citizens, a nonprofit organization, offers transportation services to people age 60 and older.

“It is door-to-door … and run by such caring professionals you know that it makes it work perfectly. They are always on time, they are always nice … and it just works for me,” said Roberta Kessler, 79, who recently took a ride on a small bus provided by the foundation.

The bus can be reserved by phone and is basically free, as the costs are covered by the federal government. Uber Technologies Inc.’s smartphone-based ride-hailing service is popular in the U.S., but it can be expensive and many seniors don’t use smartphones.

For Kessler, the foundation’s bus is a necessity to receive physical therapy once a week for her legs, and she finds it more convenient than Uber.

But such services are not yet widely available and TRIP said anticipated developments in self-driving and connected vehicles have the potential to provide older Americans with additional mobility options in the future.

In Australia, licenses aren’t immediately revoked from individuals diagnosed with dementia, but instead drivers have their individual conditions assessed to see whether they can stay on the road.

Marina Germolous, 71, who lives by herself in Canberra, was diagnosed with dementia in 2015 but did not want to stop driving because the capital city’s public transportation service is unreliable.

She took a driving test and was only granted permission to drive in areas within 15 km of her home at a designated time of day. Driving conditions for dementia patients differ by state.

Dementia patients who continue to drive without notifying authorities about their illness could have their license revoked or suspended and insurance money would not be paid in the event of an accident.

For its part, Japan revised its Road Traffic Law in March 2017 to require drivers who are 75 or older to undergo a cognitive test if they commit certain traffic violations and when they apply to renew their licenses.

Those showing signs of dementia under the test are obliged to see doctors and will have their licenses revoked or suspended if they are diagnosed with dementia.

A survey conducted in March by Rissho University professor Masabumi Tokoro showed that 76 percent of male drivers age 80 or older said they were confident with their driving abilities, while the figure was 58.3 percent for female drivers in the same age category.

The survey, which included results from drivers across all age categories, also showed that confidence tends to increase with age after many years without any major crashes.