National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Fatal traffic mishaps put drivers in the media spotlight

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

“Heartbreaking accidents have continued to occur although measures have been taken,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said ruefully at a meeting of government officials on May 21.

Specifically, Abe was referring to two recent traffic incidents that occurred less than three weeks apart. He hopes someone can find a way to prevent similar incidents from occurring.

On April 19, an 87-year-old driver shot through a red light at an intersection near Tokyo’s Ikebukuro Station and ran down 11 people as dozens of eyewitnesses looked on. The accident proved fatal for a 31-year-old woman on a bicycle and her 3-year-old daughter. Eight others suffered various degrees of injuries.

The driver, a high-ranking official who had retired from the former International Trade and Industry Ministry, was also hospitalized for about one month with several fractures.

On May 8 in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, meanwhile, two toddlers died when two cars collided at an intersection and one careened into a group of nursery school children walking along the roadside. Another dozen were injured. Both drivers were arrested.

While the Shiga accident involved two middle-aged drivers, it’s been elderly motorists who have been taking the brunt of media brickbats. According to National Police Agency figures, at the end of 2018 the number of licensed drivers who were older than 75 numbered 5.63 million. Statistically the number of those age 75 or older involved in a fatal accident, based on every 100,000 license holders, was 8.2 cases, as opposed to 3.4 for younger drivers.

According to Weekly Playboy (June 3), the most common type of accidents involving elderly drivers is head-on collisions, particularly at intersections that lack traffic signals and when making right turns across oncoming traffic.

“One of the first functions to deteriorate with age is vision,” says veteran driving instructor Takayuki Saito. “I was assigned to teach older people and noticed their judgment of distances and depth perception tends to worsen. On level streets, they have problems with timing when turning right or merging into a major street, making accidents more likely.”

As for accidents involving so-called pedal misapplication, the Institute for Traffic Accident Research and Data Analysis found such accidents total from 5,000 to 7,000 per year. Among drivers above age 75, the rate is between two to five times higher than for other age groups.

“The functions of legs decline with age, so a driver might think they’re pressing the brake pedal, unaware their foot is still on the accelerator,” Saito says. “Drivers who confuse the accelerator and brake pedals suddenly find their vehicle shooting forward and they panic. There have been numerous cases of people testifying to this.”

Another problem involving elderly drivers is dementia. In 2017, according to NPA statistics, of 1.73 million elderly drivers who were tested when renewing their license, 46,991 (approximately 3 percent) were judged to be in Category 1, suggesting the possibility of dementia. Of these, 1,351 were later so diagnosed by a physician. However, obtaining a clean bill of health from a physician is not as difficult a matter as it might seem.

“Under existing legislation, even an ear-nose-throat specialist or plastic surgeon can issue a statement attesting to mental competence,” a dementia specialist was quoted as saying. “And there’s nothing to prevent drivers from going to another hospital until they get the desired diagnosis.”

Shukan Bunshun (May 23) published a five-page article titled “20 rules for elderly drivers” that included such warning signs as increased problems in getting into the garage or when parking, forgetting to signal for turns, or a driver becoming irritable when a passenger starts a conversation while the car is in motion.

The magazine also urged elderly drivers to consider the cost of car ownership vis-a-vis taking taxis. For the former, estimated costs for fuel, parking, maintenance and safety inspection, insurance and taxes came to ¥40,475 per month. If taking a taxi a total of 48 times — broken down as 30 short trips, 16 medium trips and two longer trips of 14 kilometers — came to a total of ¥35,040 in fares, representing a saving of more than ¥5,000.

“In reaction to the Ikebukuro accident, seniors in Tokyo are being pressured to give up their licenses,” a reporter for a nationally circulated daily tells Shukan Taishu (June 3). “And following the accident in Otsu, more voices have been raised about reconsidering the road environment. It’s certain that awareness toward traffic safety has increased.”

Apparently enforcement of traffic rules in Japan is not uniform. For instance, Ehime and Ibaraki prefectures do less to discourage cars from turning right when a vehicle is approaching from the opposite direction — a practice that often startles visiting tourists. Okayama is lax about requiring use of turn signals when changing traffic lanes and Tokushima is said to be notorious for treating an amber light as a sign to zip ahead rather than slow down. Worst of all, notes Shukan Taishu, are Nagoya drivers, reflected in the fact that Aichi Prefecture led the nation in both number of accidents (35,358) and traffic violations (37,594) in 2018.

The propagation of autonomous vehicles, hopefully, will resolve safety issues for drivers of all ages. Unfortunately their introduction is still years away. In the meantime, Friday (May 31) reviewed five options being offered to enhance driver and pedestrian safety. Naruse Machinery Co., Ltd. in Kumamoto is pushing its “one pedal,” which ingeniously combines brake and accelerator into a single unit. Obviously, this will prevent drivers from hitting the wrong pedal — since there’s only one.

Subaru and Volvo have developed external air bags at the front of the vehicles designed to protect pedestrians. Accessory retailer Autovacs offers a “doze-off watcher,” using an infrared camera to monitor eye movements and issuing an alarm if it detects signs of drowsiness. Already used by some railways, a driver response system — somewhat ominously nicknamed “dead man’s switch” — monitors a driver’s face and heartbeat, and can automatically force a car onto the road’s shoulder. Finally, certain Toyota, Subaru and Daihatsu models offer “smart assist” that has been designed to warn drivers of an impending collision.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5