The National Police Agency will submit a Road Traffic Law revision bill to the Diet next week to have drivers aged 75 or older suspected of having senile dementia see a medical doctor and submit a medical certificate to the police. The bill will also make it compulsory for elderly drivers get cognitive function tests if they commit certain types of traffic rule violations. Under the revisions, those found to have senile dementia must give up their driver’s licenses. The revisions are welcome because drivers with senile dementia are likely to cause serious accidents. But given that cars are an indispensable means of transportation in more rural areas, local governments and communities should make efforts to provide transportation for elderly people who can no longer drive.

According to the NPA, drivers aged 75 or older were responsible for 458 fatal traffic accidents in 2013, an increase of 20 percent from 10 years early in 2003. Cognitive function tests of these drivers found that 31 percent of them suffered from memory and judgment impairments. Although fatal traffic accidents overall have been on the wane for 14 years through 2014, the percentage of such accidents caused by elderly drivers in that age category increased from 5.5 percent in 2003 to 11.9 percent in 2013.

In 2013, for every 100,000 drivers in that age bracket, there were 10.8 fatal accidents — about 2.5 times the corresponding figure of 4.4 such accidents for drivers under the age of 75. The NPA also says that people suffering from impaired memory and judgment tend to engage in dangerous driving practices such as driving in the opposite lane, weaving, ignoring traffic lights and signs, braking too late and mistaking the acceleration pedal for the brake pedal. They also sometimes fail to remember where they are going.

Of the 165 cases nationwide from January to September 2013 involving wrong-way driving on expressways, 23 cases involved drivers with senile dementia.

The number of drivers aged 75 or older increased from 1.95 million in 2003 to 4.25 million in 2013 and is expected to top 5.3 million in 2018. In view of these reports, the NPA’s move to revise the Road Traffic Law can’t be avoided.

Under the current system introduced in 2009, drivers in that age bracket must undergo cognitive function tests when they renew their driver’s licenses every three years. Depending on the test results, they are classified into three categories: those who have no cognitive impairments, those likely to be suffering from impaired memory and judgment, and those likely to have senile dementia. Those in the third category will be required to see a doctor and submit the results to the police only when they commit “standard action” traffic offenses such as ignoring traffic signals, driving the wrong way, failing to stop at railroad crossings and so on. If they are diagnosed as having senile dementia, they lose their licenses.

Under the new system, however, they must be tested by a doctor for senile dementia and submit the results to the police. Elderly drivers who commit standard action traffic offenses must have their cognitive functions tested again. Depending on the results, they must see a doctor or receive a special lecture.

The police and local governments should enlighten citizens about cognitive impairments and encourage those who display such symptoms to voluntarily give up their driver’s licenses. To help elderly people whose driver’s licenses have been revoked due to senile dementia, the police should also actively involve themselves in efforts to improve transportation for such people, especially in rural areas. The measures the police, local governments and communities might introduce include increasing the number of buses, bus stops and routes, encouraging taxi companies to introduce shared rides and fare discounts and establishing pools of volunteer drivers.

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