Japan looking at ways to tackle elderly road menace

An instructor speaking with an elderly student at a driving school for senior citizens in Kanuma run by the Japan Automobile Federation. A series of fatal accidents caused by elderly drivers has left the authorities desperately grappling for ways to
An instructor speaking with an elderly student at a driving school for senior citizens in Kanuma run by the Japan Automobile Federation. A series of fatal accidents caused by elderly drivers has left the authorities desperately grappling for ways to clamp down on the problem.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

KANUMA (Japan) • A series of fatal crashes caused by elderly drivers in Japan has left the authorities desperately grappling for ways to clamp down on a problem that experts warn is only going to get worse as the population ages.

Drivers over 65 were responsible for 965 deadly accidents in Japan - more than a quarter of the total - in 2016, according to the National Police Agency. In one of the most shocking cases, an 87-year-old crashed his truck into a group of schoolchildren, killing a six-year-old and injuring others, prompting demands for action on the issue.

In tranquil countryside outside Kanuma town, north of Tokyo, on a track surrounded by rice fields and mountains, a group of elderly drivers are taking a refresher course.

The pensioners pilot their cars gingerly between cones while instructors bark out orders on loudspeakers through open car windows as high-tech sensors measure reaction times for emergency stops.

Madam Emiko Takahashi, a 73-year-old taking the course, admitted she had "no confidence" in her driving as she got older.

"That's why I came here," she said, adding that she has no choice but to drive her ailing husband, seven years her senior, to hospital every day. She said her ability to concentrate had declined and her reaction times have waned. "I have become slow," she said.

LOSING CONFIDENCE

That's why I came here. I have become slow.

MADAM EMIKO TAKAHASHI, 73, on signing up for a refresher course so that she can continue driving her ailing husband around.

Fatal accidents caused by geriatric drivers now account for 28.3 per cent of the total, up from 17.9 per cent a decade ago, NPA records state. And with the elderly set to account for 40 per cent of the population by 2060, there are increasing fears for public safety.

The authorities in some regions have resorted to novel ways to encourage some of the 4.8 million drivers over 75 in Japan to hand over their licence. These include deals for cheaper funerals and discounts on ramen noodles, along with more conventional methods such as cheap or free taxi and bus rides.

But 67-year-old Kiyotaka Ukita, also taking part in the course, scoffed at these efforts, saying free bus tickets are not attractive. "The advantage (of driving your own car) is that you can go wherever and whenever you want. I hope I can continue driving until I die," he said.

Most accidents caused by elderly drivers result from them mixing up the accelerator and the brake or losing control of the steering wheel, the police agency said, calling it a "pressing problem".

Another factor in accidents is overconfidence in drivers who often have been behind the wheel for decades, said Professor Masabumi Tokoro of Rissho University, who has been studying elderly drivers. The authorities have taken steps with legislation, introducing laws in March forcing drivers aged 75 or older to pass cognitive tests when renewing their licences.

Prof Tokoro said the government needed to foster an environment in which older people can lead a normal life even after handing in their licence. He cited reasonably priced taxi-sharing services and a drive to encourage older residents to move to city centres from suburban areas.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2017, with the headline 'Japan looking at ways to tackle elderly road menace'. Print Edition | Subscribe