Editorials

Lessons from the fatal Ikebukuro car accident

It took seven months for the police to turn over to prosecutors their case against an 88-year-old former senior government official involved in a fatal car crash that killed a mother and her toddler in Tokyo in April. While once again highlighting the risk of accidents involving elderly drivers, the case of Kozo Iizuka, former chief of the Agency of Industrial Science and Technology, also stirred up emotional controversies as the husband and father of the victims called for due punishment of the driver and public suspicions mounted that Iizuka escaped arrest because of his social standing.

While such sentiments are understandable given the circumstances, what we need to learn from the case above all else is why serious car accidents involving senior drivers continue to occur despite the repeated warnings and steps taken over the years to reduce the risks of such incidents. As one preventative measure, the system to gauge elderly people’ ability to drive must be reviewed and improved.

On April 19, Iizuka’s car was traveling at nearly 100 kilometers per hour on a street in the Ikebukuro neighborhood when it ran a red light, entered a crosswalk and fatally struck the two victims while injuring several others. Initially Iizuka told police that the car’s brakes did not work, but months of investigation found no mechanical malfunction. The police concluded that Iizuka mistook the gas pedal for the brake — a common cause of accidents involving elderly drivers — as he reportedly admitted later that he may have done so in a fit of panic.

Alarmed by an increase in the number of fatal traffic accidents involving senior drivers, the police have tightened rules on the cognitive function tests that people 75 and older take when they renew their driver’s license every three years. Under the 2017 revised law on road traffic, people who fail the test must obtain a doctor’s diagnosis and if they are eventually found to have dementia, their license will either be suspended or revoked.

As the number of elderly license holders is set to increase with the aging of the nation’s population, the police have also been encouraging people who no longer have confidence in their driving ability to give up their license. The number of people who turn in their license reportedly surged in the wake of the Ikebukuro accident. Nearly 54,000 people did so in Tokyo alone in the first 10 months of this year, already setting a new annual high. About 80 percent of such people were 70 or older.

But as media reports show, Iizuka passed the cognitive tests without a problem when he renewed his license in 2017. According to the National Police Agency, 210 of the 414 drivers 75 or older who were responsible for fatal traffic accidents in 2018 were found to have normal cognitive functions when they last renewed their license.

Dementia is believed to advance gradually — with no clear distinction between a normal state and a cognitive disorder in the early stages — and it is considered difficult to make an accurate diagnosis based on a single test. There are reportedly a number of cases in which drivers, after passing the test when renewing their license, suffered from a sudden decline in cognitive ability and health, and caused a serious accident.

People’s ability to drive is affected not just by their cognitive functions but by their physical performance, health conditions and various other factors. Iizuka reportedly had a medical issue in one of his legs and suffered from an ailment akin to Parkinson’s disease, which causes hand and leg rigidity. His doctor had reportedly told him that he should not drive.

Some experts say that there are limits to accurately judging elderly people’s ability to drive solely based on cognitive functions tests taken every few years. The tests should be improved to more comprehensively gauge the fitness of elderly drivers .

The government is weighing the introduction of a limited license for elderly drivers that allows them to drive cars equipped with advanced safety features such as automatic brakes or a mechanism to prevent sudden acceleration if the driver mistakes the gas pedal for the brake. Also being considered are subsidies for people 65 or older to buy new vehicles with such extra safety functions as part of the economic package that is currently being readied.

Along with such measures, what’s also needed is a system that can more accurately examine whether elderly people are fit to drive — and to let the drivers themselves know about it. The mental and physical effects that having to give up driving have on elderly people is often highlighted, especially among residents who live in areas that have few other alternative means of transportation, but the risk and possible consequences of having people who are unfit to drive getting behind the wheel must also be emphasized.