Editorials

Preventing accidents by elderly drivers

The National Police Agency plans to review the driver’s license system to help prevent traffic accidents by elderly drivers. In doing so, it should consider how to build a network among the police, local governments and health care professionals that can properly deal with problems involving elderly motorists.

As of the end of last year, 5.13 million people 75 or older had a driver’s license — an increase of 2.55 million from a decade earlier. With the aging of the nation’s population, their number is expected to reach 6.13 million by 2021. The annual figure of fatal traffic accidents fell from 6,100 in 2005 to 3,400 in 2016. But the number of such accidents caused by elderly drivers has remained at roughly 400 a year, meaning that they account for a growing portion of fatal accidents.

A revision of the Road Traffic Law went into effect in March, stipulating that if people 75 or older are judged to be at risk of suffering from senile dementia in a cognitive function test given when they renew their driver’s license, they must undergo a medical examination by doctors. If they commit certain types of traffic violations, such as driving on the wrong side of the road, they also have to get a medical checkup. If they are diagnosed as suffering from dementia, their license will either be invalidated or suspended. The NPA expects that some 15,000 drivers annually will have their license revoked or suspended as a result of the amendment.

A year after the new rules have been introduced, the NPA plans to study their effects and determine what concrete steps it will take in changing the driver’s license system. Proposals by a panel within the NPA include the introduction of a “limited” driver’s license that would permit some elderly people to drive only cars equipped with safety support systems such as brakes that automatically activate when an imminent collision is sensed by radar or cameras, and a decelerator that activates when drivers accidentally press the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal.

This idea does have positive points. Instead of revoking or suspending elderly people’s driver’s licenses, which could deprive them of their only means of transportation, the limited license would enable them to continue to carry out the errands that are necessary in their daily lives, such as shopping and getting health care.

Moreover, by driving cars equipped with safety assist systems, the motorists themselves may realize that their driving ability is declining, possibly giving them incentive to voluntarily give up driving. As of 2015, only 46 percent and 36 percent of newly marketed cars had automatic brakes and automatic deceleration systems, respectively. The proportion of such vehicles needs to be increased, and the reliability of these systems should be enhanced.

Another proposal by the panel calls for assigning workers with medical knowledge to each prefectural police force so they can provide counseling to drivers who have turned 80 or older as well as high-risk drivers who repeatedly have traffic accidents. The NPA hopes such a program will encourage more elderly drivers with cognitive problems to voluntarily give up their license. Also being considered is making such drivers undergo a driving test. Those who fail would have their license either revoked or suspended.

Other proposals include the development of a curriculum designed to improve the driving ability of people whose cognitive functions have declined and the introduction of a visual field test for elderly drivers when they take classes at the time of their license renewal. The National Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology would help develop the curriculum.

Effectively implementing such programs will require support from medical professionals. But the amendment to the Road Traffic Law is expected to significantly increase the number of people who need to be diagnosed as to whether they suffer senile dementia — from 4,000 to 5,000 a year to 50,000. Since there are not enough medical specialists in the field, it will be important for them to share their knowledge with and give advice to other doctors who will have to carry out the examination.

The police, local governments, hospitals, doctors and care managers will need to establish a network to accurately assess declines in drivers’ physical functions and to give them appropriate advice. It will also be important for these institutions and people to identify and solve problems unique to each local community from the viewpoint of elderly drivers.