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The National Police Agency chose “Striving for the World’s Safest Road Traffic” as the main theme of its 2005 white paper made public recently. This is the first time in about a quarter-century that traffic safety has been the main feature of the annual report, thus denoting the agency’s enthusiasm for the topic.

The worst year for traffic safety in Japan was 1970 when 16,765 people died in road accidents. Although the annual number of traffic deaths subsequently showed a declining trend, they topped 10,000 in 1988. In the past 10 years or so, annual traffic deaths have been less than 10,000.

Since 2001, the number has continued to decrease every year, dropping to 7,358 deaths in 2004. Although this number is less than half the 1970 peak, it still means that about 20 people are dying tragic deaths every day in road accidents.

The government has set a goal of reducing annual traffic deaths to under 5,000 by the year 2013. In pursuing this target, the NPA considers as indispensable the protection of elderly people — those aged 65 or older. In 2004, 3,046 elderly people were killed in traffic accidents, accounting for more than 40 percent of the traffic-death toll. This age bracket has the largest number of traffic deaths.

Although NPA’s aim of reducing the number of traffic deaths is understandable, emphasis should also be placed on lowering the total number of traffic accidents and the number of people injured. It should be noted that annual tallies for traffic accidents and accident-related injuries have continued to climb over the past 30 years. In 2004, 952,191 traffic accidents injured a record 1,183,120 people. The goal of reducing traffic deaths should be tackled as part of an overall effort to reduce the number of traffic accidents.

One concrete way of lowering the number of traffic accidents involving elderly people would be for the government to lay down numerical accident-and-injury reduction goals for each prefecture as part of the government’s five-year basic traffic safety program, beginning in fiscal 2006. The fact that elderly people are more likely to die or suffer serious injuries when involved in so-called minor traffic accidents — such as contact with slow-moving vehicles or a fall from a bicycle — underscores the need to cut the number of overall traffic accidents.

The white paper pushes the idea of creating communities where cars and people can coexist. Yet attention must focus, too, on the fact that pedestrians and bicyclists together account for more than 40 percent of all traffic-related deaths in Japan. Last year, people 65 or older accounted for 66 percent of the pedestrian deaths and 60 percent of the deaths involving bicycles. Of these elderly people, nearly 90 percent did not hold driver’s licenses. This suggests that victims’ lack of education or knowledge concerning traffic rules may have contributed to a fatal traffic accident.

Given these facts, putting priority on enhancing the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists seems reasonable. More concrete efforts should be made to prevent minor accidents in residential areas and shopping areas — the areas where many elderly people spend much of their daily life. For example, does it seem reasonable to continue to allow bicycles to travel on sidewalks? One idea is to narrow the vehicular portion of roads in residential areas and create wider sidewalks and wider bicycle lanes demarcated by curbstones.

The graying of the nation’s population is reflected in other figures cited by the white paper. In 2003, the number of people aged 65 or older holding driver’s licenses exceeded the number of license-holders aged 24 or younger. In 2004, 1,019 elderly people died while driving cars or motorbikes, an increase of 24 percent from 10 years before. By contrast, the number of those aged 16 to 20 who died while driving cars or motorbikes stood at 1,223, a decrease of about 60 percent from 10 years before.

One problem is that elderly drivers often seem overly confident about their driving skills. A poll shows that 90.2 percent of elderly drivers think that they became more careful about driving with age, while 68.3 percent of younger people surveyed think that elderly drivers generally do not pay enough attention to their surroundings.

The NPA is negative about imposing an age limit on holding a driver’s license. But as the white paper points out, it is imperative to strengthen the education of elderly drivers and develop scientifically convincing tests that can determine which people are fit for driving.

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