Ihad a great aunt who drove a car right up until she was in her late 80s. On one occasion her daughter, my cousin, was a passenger in the car, and I heard the following from her. “Mom drove right through a red light,” she told me, “but I decided not to mention it to her. Then she ran another red light. I turned to her and said, ‘Mom, you just drove through two red lights.’ Mom, still at the wheel, turned her head to me and said, ‘Am I driving?’ “

A funny story, perhaps, but true, and one that brings up a very serious issue. Up to what age should people be allowed to drive?

Clearly, some people are alert at 90, while others go downhill much earlier. In addition to the above incident involving my great aunt, I have heard many stories of elderly drivers whose reaction time and decision-making prowess were not up to the task of controlling what can, in an instant, turn into a weapon of pretty massive destruction.

The problem of the potentially dangerous elderly driver knows no national boundary, and here in Japan, the National Police Agency is taking steps to ameliorate it. The agency has proposed a revision to the Road Traffic Law requiring drivers who are 70 or older to take a dementia test. This would entail testing both their judgment ability and memory faculties. The present law allows for the possible revocation or suspension of licenses if officials in the National Police Agency deem an elderly driver unfit.

According to statistics reported in the Asahi Shimbun on Oct. 14, the agency estimates that as many as 300,000 drivers have dementia. The number of accidents caused by people who are 70 or older is markedly on the increase, and the rate at which this group of 5.4 million drivers cause fatal accidents is almost double that of the general driving population.

The issue of elderly drivers is only one of many bringing to light what has been a very lax approach to driving safety in Japan.

Horrendous accidents

The problem of drink-driving is finally making it into the headlines. This is due to some horrendous accidents in recent months and years in which drivers under the influence of alcohol rammed their car or truck into another car, killing children.

Some years ago, a drunk truck driver, with a record of negligent driving, took the lives of two toddlers sitting in the back of their parents’ car. It was the perseverance of the parents, including their tearful but adamant pleas on television for justice, that persuaded the Japanese public to start taking this problem more seriously.

More recently a young speeding driver crashed into the back of a car, sending it tumbling into a river. The parents survived, but the three little children in the car drowned. The mother tried desperately to save her children by diving down to the car four times, but in vain.

The Japanese approach to many social problems, be it drunk-driving, child abuse, domestic violence, etc., is, “If you don’t hear about it, it probably doesn’t exist to any significant degree in Japan.”

People in bars, pubs and restaurants ply their colleagues with liquor, even knowing that the latter will have to drive home. The media has assiduously avoided taking up the problem until very recently. Could this be because some of the main advertisers in newspapers, and sponsors on television and radio, are car manufacturers? Is this another case of a huge problem that “doesn’t exist”?

Stepping back further to look at the entire car culture, we can see that Japan has been horrifically slack about safety.

When taking a taxi and sitting in the back seat, I always try to fasten my safety belt. The belt itself is there, but invariably the part to click it into is stuffed into the bottom of the seat, making it impossible to fasten.

I always make a point of mentioning this to the taxi driver, and this is a typical conversation: “I can’t fasten the safety belt back here.”

“It’s fine. Don’t worry. I’m a safe driver.”

“Yes, I’m sure you are, I’m just not sure about the other guy. Anyway, in my country [Australia], buckling up in the back is compulsory.” At which point the driver usually looks round at me with a puzzled expression, and says, “Oh.”

Being a pedestrian in Japan is no better. I often wonder why they bother to paint those zebra stripes on the streets in the first place. Very few drivers stop for pedestrians unless the latter have reached the middle of the crossing. If, as a pedestrian, you look at the driver, you will often see an expression of annoyance that you slowed them down by crossing “in their path.”

Safety consciousness

And car ads are increasingly stressing speed, as they did in the 1950s and ’60s in America, before safety consciousness took hold. If those ads are to believed, men, particularly young men, get a real macho rush out of driving at more than 100 kph along a mountain road with hairpin turns. Speed is a drug — and I am not talking about amphetamines. Put a fast car in the hands of a young man giddy on masculinity, and equally unsure of it, and you are doing nothing less than arming him to potentially maim and kill. Yet those ads portray driving very fast as some kind of ultimate thrill.

The car culture in Japan begs serious examination. Until now the police have often treated the victims in a car accident as being at least partially responsible for the accident, whatever the circumstances. They are even known to withhold evidence from the victims’ lawyers. Who, I wonder, are they protecting by doing this?

It is often said that someone has to die at a crossing before authorities will install a traffic light. Well, this has been the case with Japan’s attitudes toward negligent driving.

One can only imagine the awful suffering of parents who lose children in accidents caused by drunk or speeding drivers. Yet in Japan, in the past, even such parents were encouraged, culturally and officially, to bury their grief and not make an issue out of their loss. Now some parents are refusing to do what is called in Japanese nakineiri, or “cry into their sleeve.” It is thanks to their courage, in confronting both society and officialdom, that innocent lives will be saved in the future.

The story of my great aunt is, in retrospect, not very funny at all. But it brings to light the issue of problem drivers, whether they be too old, too young, too drunk or merely too irresponsible. But one thing we learn from all of this in Japan is that the public, the police and the lawmakers must come to terms with what has been a car culture exceedingly lax in terms of safety and safety-consciousness. How many more people will have to die and suffer before this huge problem is effectively addressed?

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