An increasing number of fatal accidents involving elderly drivers requires an urgent response, particularly because declining cognitive functions are suspected in many collisions caused by motorists aged 75 or older. Cognitive ability tests have become mandatory for senior motorists when they renew their license or have caused an accident, and those who feel they can no longer drive safely are being urged to voluntarily give up their license — and hundreds of thousands do so each year. Still, the number of fatal traffic accidents involving senior drivers per 100,000 license holders in 2018 picked up for the first time in five years.

Concern lingers that losing their licenses could deprive elderly people of a crucial means of daily transport, particularly in rural areas where public transportation services have been cut due to depopulation and falling profitability. Efforts are afoot to provide alternatives to meet the needs of such people, including experiments involving self-driving bus services, although hurdles remain before they will ever see practical use. These efforts need to be accelerated to prevent more traffic accidents involving senior motorists.

There were 460 fatal traffic accidents in 2018 in which a driver 75 or older was primarily responsible — an increase of 42 from the previous year and accounting for a record 14.8 percent of the total — whereas the total number of traffic deaths was the lowest since 1948, when officials first started compiling comparable figures. Of the 460 drivers, 414 had earlier undergone the mandatory cognitive functions test — which showed that 49 percent of them were feared to have dementia or declining cognitive functions. The National Police Agency suspects that the state of cognitive functioning among these drivers was a factor behind their accidents. Many of the accidents were blamed on basic driver errors.

The revised road traffic law implemented in March 2017 tightened the rules on cognitive testing for people renewing their driver’s license. If the test indicates the possibility of dementia, the person is obliged to see a doctor. If dementia is indeed diagnosed, their license is either revoked or suspended. In the first year of the law, 2.1 million drivers went through the cognitive testing, of whom roughly 57,000 showed possible signs of dementia. Some 15,000 of them saw a doctor, and 1,900 had their license revoked or suspended on the basis of the diagnosis. More than 20,000 others either voluntarily surrendered their license or just gave up seeking renewal.

Traffic accidents involving seniors is a looming problem that needs to be addressed as the number of elderly drivers will grow as the population rapidly ages. The number of people 75 or older licensed to drive is projected to increase from 5.6 million at the end of last year to 6.63 million in 2022. Meanwhile, there are estimates that the number of elderly people in Japan with dementia will increase to 7 million in 2025, accounting for one out of every five people 65 or older.

Given the risk of driving with reduced cognitive functions and the possible consequences, people should seriously consider giving up their license if they no longer have full confidence in their ability. Family members and others close to them may need to prod them if they themselves are unaware of — or unwilling to accept — their declining driving skills.

It is equally important to make sure that the elderly who give up their license will not be deprived of daily transportation. That is a particularly difficult challenge in rural areas where, due to depopulation, falling profitability and a shortage of drivers, public transportation services such as railways and buses have been severely reduced or terminated, leaving many senior citizens hesitant to give up driving. Some experts warn that unlike in urban areas that offer plenty of public transportation services, uniformly urging senior rural drivers to turn over their car keys would result in restricting their sphere of daily living and social exchanges, possibly leading to the collapse of local communities.

The NPA is reportedly weighing the introduction of a “limited” license that would allow senior drivers to drive only vehicles with special safety features, such as automatic brakes, or allow them to drive only in their neighborhood to meet daily needs. Expectations are also high for self-driving technology to solve the problems of senior citizens no longer able to drive safely on their own. Experiments have begun on self-driving bus services in rural depopulated areas to serve the needs of local residents who otherwise have no means of public transportation. Although various challenges still remain, these alternatives should be explored so that the lack of such options won’t keep people from making a wise choice about their own driving.

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