On June 10, a car crashed into a supermarket in Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture, injuring 14 people. At first the incident sounded like yet another elderly person losing control of a vehicle and causing destruction, but then it transpires that the driver was a 55-year-old man.
Does that count as elderly? Police arrested the man on suspicion of negligent driving resulting in injuries. Reports say he bore down on the accelerator after he felt the right side of his body go numb, a condition that could be age-related. When it comes to traffic accidents, 55 may be the new 75.
The conspicuous rise in auto accidents caused by older drivers, a development the media follows closely, has resulted in a nationwide movement to convince seniors to surrender their driving licenses. Although it’s hardly a problem limited to Japan, the rapidly aging society combined with other factors peculiar to Japan make it one that calls for specific action.
One contributing factor is the lack of alternative transportation for the elderly, especially in rural and suburban areas. Without cars, many would be stranded at home, isolated from the community and thus more likely to fall into a state of indolence and depression, which can accelerate the onset of dementia and other cognitive disabilities. Many seniors not only want to drive, but feel it’s vital to their well-being. A less frequently mentioned issue but by no means a less relevant one is Japan’s road infrastructure. Elderly drivers would not be as much of a hazard if roadways were sufficiently wide and separated safely from sidewalks. Since this is a common situation throughout the country, most Japanese, including those in the media, don’t always acknowledge it as a contributing factor, but every time an older person plows into a bunch of kids walking to or from school, it’s as much to blame as is the driver’s loss of control.
While the onus of responsibility falls on the vehicle operator, there is still a reluctance to deprive older people of their precious right to drive. In May, a 90-year-old woman killed a 57-year-old pedestrian and injured 3 others in Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, when she ran a red light. No one is going to argue that 90 does not qualify as “elderly,” but as pointed out during a heated discussion of the story on Nippon TV’s afternoon information show, News Every, the woman had renewed her license in March after passing a cognitive evaluation last December with flying colors. In fact, she was rewarded with a “gold” license, which is given to people with excellent driving records.
What the reporters found perplexing about the case was that the woman, while “showing no signs of cognitive impairment,” told police that she knew the signal was red, but drove through it anyway because she didn’t think any pedestrians were crossing at the time. The police arrested her but later let her go after concluding that the accident was caused by a diminishment of faculties. Does that mean the cognitive evaluation test she took was flawed? Shouldn’t her admission that she knowingly drove through a red light require some kind of penalty? In the end, the only thing that happened is that her license was revoked, obviously too late.
In March 2017, a revised Road Traffic Law went into effect that is meant to address the problem of elderly drivers, but it still makes it easy for them, especially those who have clean driving records, to retain the right to drive. Persons over 75 years old who violate any of 18 given traffic rules must undergo an evaluation. Individuals who are not cleared are required to go to a physician for further evaluation, and if the doctor thinks they have reduced cognitive functions, their licenses will either be suspended or revoked.
But according to a June 2 article in the Sankei Shimbun, of the 46,900 drivers or so who have been referred to doctors for further cognitive evaluation since the law went into effect, about 7,100 of those diagnosed with cognitive dysfunctions were still allowed to renew their licenses under the condition that they undergo another doctor’s evaluation within six months.
One of the reasons for this potentially lethal leniency is that dementia, probably the most commonly understood manifestation of cognitive diminishment in older people, does not always mean the person can’t drive properly.
As Katsuya Urakami, head of a national group that addresses dementia in Japan, told the Sankei Shimbun, even Alzheimer’s patients are not necessarily a danger behind the wheel, because Alzheimer’s does not primarily affect motor functions. Some U.S, states and Germany, drivers diagnosed with some form of dementia do not automatically lose their licenses but may be restricted from driving in certain areas or at certain times of the day.
In many localities, however, there is still no safety net in place for people who do give up driving. The government announced June 8 that 8.25 million Japanese over the age of 65 “have difficulty shopping for food and daily supplies without a car” because stores are far away from where they live and they don’t have ready access to transportation. That figure represents a 21.6 percent increase over the past decade.
Local governments may deem it more economical to allow older people to keep driving than to set up programs that help them get by without cars. Unsurprisingly, the prefectures where seniors are more likely to give up their licenses are Tokyo and Osaka, which have fully developed transportation systems.
The problem may just fade away as the baby boomer generation, the first in Japan to uniformly take up driving as a civic right and modern privilege, dies out.
According to a survey cited on a recent MBS radio program, the portion of the population interested in buying an automobile has now dropped below half. To many Japanese, owning a car just isn’t worth the expense or the trouble, which is another reason young people are moving to cities. Unlike their grandparents, they don’t equate driving with being alive.