Mon, Oct 02, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Old n’ reckless

Wonky driving by Japan’s elderly is raising death tolls, but these experienced drivers aren’t giving up their licenses yet

By Natsuko Fukue  /  AFP, KANUMA, Japan

An instructor addresses participants in a Tochigi prefecture driving school for senior citizens in July.

Photo: AFP

A series of fatal crashes caused by elderly drivers in Japan has left 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 last year — more than a quarter of the total — according to the National Police Agency (NPA).

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 the town of Kanuma, north of Tokyo, on a track surrounded by rice paddies and mountains, a group of elderly drivers are taking public safety into their own hands and completing refresher courses behind the wheel.

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

Emiko Takahashi, a 73-year-old woman 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.

Takahashi said her ability to concentrate had declined as she aged and her reaction times have waned. “I have become slow,” she adds.

‘DRIVE UNTIL I DIE’

Fatal accidents caused by geriatric drivers now account for 28.3 percent of the total, up from 17.9 percent a decade ago, NPA records state.

And with the elderly set to account for 40 percent of the population by 2060, there are increasing fears for public safety. 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 license.

These include deals for cheaper funerals and discounts on ramen, along with more conventional methods such as cheap or free taxis and buses.

But 67-year-old Kiyotaka Ukita, also taking part in the course, scoffed at these efforts.

“Free bus tickets aren’t attractive at all for older drivers to return their licenses,” said Ukita, sporting a lengthy shock-white goatee beard.

“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.

Impaired judgement

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.”

Masato Zenyouji, an instructor at the Japan Automobile Federation, said one of the problems lay in the declining ability of older drivers “to instantly make a judgement, such as suddenly hitting the brake.”

“When the speed increases, their field of view narrows down, which could lead to accidents,” he said.

The driving course attempts to address this by physical exercises such as stretching as well as drills to improve cognitive functions.

Another factor in accidents is overconfidence from drivers who have often been behind the wheel for decades, said Masabumi Tokoro, a professor at Rissho University who has been studying elderly drivers.

According to a survey conducted by Tokoro, 10 percent of drivers in their 30s thought they were capable of avoiding accidents, while the figure stood at 53 percent for those aged 75 and older.

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