Technology to assist elderly drivers

The development of self-driving cars featuring state of the art artificial intelligence technology is the buzzword in the auto industry today. But automakers can also contribute to traffic safety by developing and promoting the use of mechanisms that prevent accidents caused by the driving errors of elderly motorists, whose risk was highlighted by a series of fatal accidents late last year.

In 2016, the number of deaths in traffic accidents fell 5 percent from the previous year to 3,904, falling below 4,000 for the first time in 67 years and a significant improvement from the worst year of 1970, when 16,765 people were killed. But the number of victims 65 or older hit 2,138, accounting for a record 54.8 percent of the total — a fairly high figure among advanced economies. Police statistics show that drivers 65 or older were primarily responsible for nearly a quarter of the roughly 3,600 fatal accidents in 2014.

Three car accidents caused by senior citizens — all in their 80s — in October and November killed a total of four pedestrians and injuring several others. In Yokohama, a man who police subsequently suspected suffers from senile dementia drove his light truck into a group of schoolchildren. In western Tokyo, a women who hit pedestrians inside a hospital compound is believed to have mistaken the gas pedal for the brake pedal. According to the Institute for Traffic Accident Research and Data analysis, about 6,000 accidents caused by similar errors on the part of drivers are taking place nationwide annually.

The government has been urging elderly people who have lost confidence in their driving skills to voluntarily give up their driver’s licenses. It is also tightening checks on the cognitive functions of senior citizens when they get their licenses renewed. Another way of reducing accidents involving elderly motorists would be to develop and promote vehicle mechanisms that help prevent driver errors from causing accidents, such as ones that will prevent sudden acceleration when a driver mistakenly presses the gas pedal.

A mechanism introduced by Fuji Heavy Industries on its Subaru cars in 2008, equipped with monitors to detect objects in the vehicle’s path and automatically applies the brakes to avoid crashes, came widely in use partly because of its low extra cost of ¥100,000. A comparison of the same cars with and without the mechanism is reported to have shown that the device has significantly reduced the risk of an accident. Automakers have been increasing sales of new cars equipped with such safety features in recent years, which has contributed to the decline in the number of accidents. Beginning in 2018, insurance companies are reducing the premiums on insurance policies on cars equipped with automatic braking systems by nearly 10 percent.

The transport ministry suggests that installation of automatic braking systems may be made mandatory on vehicles if the technology advances enough to recognize the movement of pedestrians — not just objects in front — with greater accuracy.

Automakers tend not to favor the installation of aftermarket safety features on their cars — on the grounds that the use of aftermarket parts may cause technical problems because the operations of engine and brakes on recent models are computer controlled. Last month, Autobacs Seven, a major retailer of automotive parts and accessories, put on sale a device that electronically controls the throttle when the driver mistakenly hits the gas pedal instead of the brake to prevent the car from shooting forward. The low-cost device is a simple structure that can reportedly be used on roughly 100 car models from various makers.

Alarmed by the large number of traffic accidents involving elderly drivers, the transport ministry last month urged four makers of mini vehicles — Suzuki, Daihatsu, Honda and Mitsubishi — to come up with measures by the end of February for the development of advanced safety mechanisms such as automatic braking to prevent accidents and the promotion of their use. Measures on mini vehicles are prioritized because they are particularly popular among elderly drivers. While many of the advanced safety mechanisms are becoming standard features on the latest models, devices that can be installed on older vehicles to help prevent driving errors should be considered.

The development of safety mechanisms to assist elderly motorists may not have to be as high-tech as self-driving vehicles running on the latest AI technology. There is a lot that the automakers can do to help reduce accidents involving senior citizens.