A recent series of fatal accidents involving cars driven by elderly people has led the government to organize an urgent meeting of officials in which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told his Cabinet ministers to tackle the problem. Both the national and local governments should take concrete steps to prevent such accidents, including by properly assessing the driving ability of senior citizens while working out measures to secure alternate means of transport for elderly residents — particularly in rural areas where public transportation services have become meager.
What is tragic and dreadful about these accidents is that people’s everyday tools suddenly turn into lethal instruments. In October, an 83-year-old man slammed his light truck into a group of schoolchildren on a walkway in Yokohama after he lost control of the vehicle, killing a first-grader and injuring four other pupils.
Although evidence indicates the man had been driving in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture since the day before, he told the police he didn’t remember where he had been and had almost no recall of what he was doing before the fatal crash.
The police suspect he suffers from senile dementia. No irregularities were found in a cognitive function test when he last renewed his driver’s license, but that was three years ago.
The Yokohama case was followed by two fatal accidents involving drivers in their 80s earlier this month. In Shimotsuke, Tochigi Prefecture, an 84-year-old man crashed his car into an entrance to a hospital, killing one pedestrian and injuring two others.
Two days later, a car driven by a 83-year-old woman struck and killed two people on a sidewalk in the compounds of a hospital in western Tokyo, with the driver herself suffering serious injuries. The accident occurred on her way home from visiting her husband at the hospital — she said she started driving that car in September to see the husband there. The police suspect the woman — who held a “gold” driver’s license because she had a perfect driving record — mistook the gas pedal for the brake pedal.
According to the National Police Agency, 4.36 fatal traffic accidents occurred per 100,000 drivers last year. The figure goes up with the age of drivers — 6.99 for those aged 75 to 79; 11.53 for those from 80 to 84 and 18.17 among drivers 85 and older. As of the end of 2015, some 4.78 million licensed drivers were 75 and older — an increase of 300,000, or 6.8 percent, from a year earlier. The number of elderly drivers is expected to rise as the graying of the nation’s population progresses.
Other NPA statistics are also revealing. In 26 percent of the some 3,600 fatal traffic accidents in 2014, drivers 65 and above committed gross negligence — an increase of nearly 10 points over the past decade. According to the transport ministry, 69 percent of the 739 drivers who drove their vehicles the wrong way on expressways from 2011 to 2014 were 65 and older — with 9 percent of them suspected of suffering from senile dementia.
Beginning in March, an amendment to the Road Traffic Law will require a stricter cognitive function test for drivers 75 and older when they renew their licenses every three years. If the drivers show signs of deficiency in memory and judgment, they must see a doctor, and if they are diagnosed with dementia, their licenses will be either revoked or suspended. If elderly drivers violate traffic rules, they will be required to take an extra cognitive function test.
The NPA has for years been calling on elderly drivers who have lost confidence in their driving skills to voluntarily return their licenses. Last year, 123,913 drivers aged 75 and older did so, accounting for about 43 percent of the senior citizens who took this step.
The government should consider whether the steps taken are enough to prevent accidents involving senior drivers. It should also think about increasing the frequency of cognitive functions testing to detect early signs of dementia. Another important step is taking into account other factors linked to advanced age that affect people’s ability to drive — such as declining eyesight and slower response times. The introduction of additional tests to gauge elderly drivers’ physical abilities should also to be considered.
Such steps should go hand in hand with measures to secure convenient daily transportation options for senior citizens who have to give up driving. These should include the distribution of discount coupons for buses and taxis, and the introduction of more low-cost public transport. Such measures will be strongly needed in rural depopulated areas where public transportation services such as buses are being cut back. Communities must strive to ensure that the transportation needs of local elderly residents who no longer drive can be met.