Japan’s aging society is facing a new level of urgency in addressing driver safety after a string of traffic fatalities caused by elderly drivers having lost control of their vehicles.
As we age, our declining physical and cognitive functions affect the reflexes needed to coordinate the steering wheel and brakes while driving, which increases the risk of accidents. With Japan’s rapidly aging population, the issue is exacerbated — the number of Japanese people over the age of 75 who have renewed their driver’s license has tripled since entering the 21st century. It’s predicted that by 2030 the number of elderly drivers renewing their licenses will be more than double the infant population of many prefectures.
In mid-April, a car driven by a man in his late 80s plowed into a pedestrian crossing, killing two mothers and a child and injuring 10 others in Tokyo’s bustling northwestern entertainment district of Ikebukuro. The driver, a former government bureaucrat at the National Institute of Industrial Science and Technology, claimed the accelerator and the brake failed to work. Police say the car accelerated to a speed of 90 kilometers in a 50 kilometer zone. Investigators did not find any abnormalities with the car. Last week, the man attended a hearing at a local police station looking visibly frail and assisted with two walking aids. As he was hounded by reporters, he muttered his “deepest apologies” to the press. It’s alleged that before the accident the perpetrator reported pain in both legs to his doctor and had been advised to refrain from driving.
The high-profile incident sparked a barrage of public criticism by people trying to make sense of why the perpetrator was not reprimanded or arrested after being discharged from the hospital. Critics slammed the decision as being influenced by his connections as a public servant or from the Japanese tendency to treat senior citizens with greater respect.
In a similar car mishap in mid-May in Chiba, east of Tokyo, a runaway car ran into a group of five nursery children playing in a sandbox at a park, injuring them and their 30-year-old teacher. The driver, in his mid-60s, confessed to mistakenly stepping on the accelerator instead of the brake when taking a ticket at the parking lot opposite the park. The driver was arrested immediately at the scene.
The National Police Agency (NPA) reported that about half of drivers over 75 who were involved in fatal traffic accidents were judged medically as being “normal” in cognitive function tests. Currently in Japan licenses are revoked if a person is diagnosed with dementia and older drivers are encouraged to independently check their driving skills.
But following high-profile fatal car accidents, the NPA is exploring a national driving test for older drivers and licenses limited to advanced “safe driving support” vehicles fitted with automatic brake functions.
But with more than 2 million upcoming license renewals for drivers over 75, there are concerns on how to go about setting specific criteria for revoking a license and the difficulty in rolling out a thorough test as aging driver license renewals are expected to balloon. For the time being, the NPA is calling for the effective use of a “Driving Aptitude Consultation Desk” for prefectural police, which provides advice for elderly drivers and their families.
However, it’s interesting to note that statistics paint a different picture on who carries a higher tendency toward traffic accidents. In reality, young people cause a higher number of traffic accidents and, overall, fatal accidents are on the decline. In 2018 there were 400,000 traffic accidents nationwide compared to 720,000 incidents reported in 2008. Last year young drivers aged 20 to 24 caused the highest number of traffic accidents at 41,578. On the other end of the age bracket, drivers between 70 to 74 were behind the wheel during 25,953 accidents. Meanwhile, drivers over the age of 85 were responsible for 3,971.
In light of the recent fatalities, some senior citizens are leading a movement encouraging others to voluntarily forfeit their driver’s license — leading by example. But a hard-line approach could impede on the quality of life for those living in regional or rural areas with limited access to public transport. This has prompted proposals for adding certain conditions, such as travel distance restrictions, should driving be permitted.