Fatal traffic accidents involving elderly drivers are on the rise. In April, a car driven by an 87-year-old former elite government bureaucrat apparently went out of control on the road in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro and hit multiple pedestrians, killing a woman and her daughter. Earlier this month, an 81-year-old man crashed his car into several vehicles at high speed at an intersection in Fukuoka, killing himself as well as his wife who was in the passenger’s seat and injuring seven others.

While the number of deaths in traffic accidents last year fell to the lowest level on record since 1948, the number of fatal accidents caused by drivers 75 and older hit a record 460, accounting for 15 percent of all fatal traffic accidents. The problem needs to be addressed from multiple angles.

Many accidents caused by elderly drivers are blamed on simple errors such as pressing the accelerator instead of the brake and steering mistakes. A decline in drivers’ cognitive functions, eyesight and physical abilities due to aging is deemed to contribute to such mistakes.

With the rapid aging of Japan’s population, the number of people 75 or older who hold driver’s licenses increased to 5.63 million at the end of last year — and it’s estimated the figure will reach 6.6 million in 2022. The government has been urging elderly people to give up their licenses if they no longer have confidence in their driving skills, and the number of drivers 75 or older who did so reached a record 290,000 last year — triple the number just five years ago. The April accident in Ikebukuro is said to have prompted a growing number of elderly motorists to give up their licenses in recent weeks.

Still, many people of advanced age continue to drive for various reasons — particularly in areas where they rely on their cars for their daily needs. A recent Cabinet Office survey of people 60 or older showed that 1 out of 4 people 80 or older drive — and a majority of them almost every day — when they need to go somewhere. The chances of elderly people driving — which decline as they advance in age — are higher in small towns and villages than in big urban areas. Many elderly drivers cannot do without their own cars in depopulated areas — where public transportation services like railways and buses tend to be limited — for shopping and visiting hospitals.

The amended Road Traffic Law that was implemented in 2017 tightened the rules on testing the cognitive functions of drivers 75 or older when they renew their licenses. They are required to see doctors if tests show they may be suffering from dementia, and their licenses will be either revoked or suspended if they are diagnosed with dementia.

However, about half the 414 elderly drivers who caused fatal accidents last year had shown no signs of decline in their cognitive functions when tested. The 87-year-old driver in the Ikebukuro accident is also believed to have passed the tests when he renewed his license two years ago. It should be reexamined whether the current tests are properly assessing the elderly people’s cognitive and physical fitness to drive.

To prevent accidents involving elderly drivers, the drivers themselves should decide — as the husband and father of the Ikebukuro accident victims pleaded in a news conference — to consider the option of giving up their driver’s licenses if they have any misgiving about their ability to safely operate a vehicle.

What is needed to help them make such decisions are efforts to create an environment in which people who are no longer confident in their ability to safely drive don’t have to, such as operating community bus services and offering subsidies for taxi fares to fill the transportation needs of such residents in certain areas.

Equally important will be the development of technologies that assist elderly people to drive safely. Automakers are urged to add safety features such as automatic brakes to their vehicles. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is reportedly considering subsidizing the cost of attaching devices to the cars of elderly drivers to prevent sudden acceleration if they mistake the gas pedal for the brake.

The police and the transport ministry are said to be weighing the introduction of a limited license for senior drivers, with which they can drive only vehicles equipped with safety features such as automatic brakes, and can only drive in designated areas during certain hours. These and various other steps should also encourage the elderly drivers to think hard about their fitness to drive.

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