Ageing society

Older drivers in Japan are mixing up their accelerate and brake pedals with fatal results

Deadly accidents caused by cars driven by the elderly are a growing problem in a country where 4.8 million people aged 75 or older hold a licence

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2016, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2016, 11:04pm

Sachiko Uezu told police she applied her car’s brakes. Instead, the 83-year-old drove through the automated barrier at a western Tokyo car park, careered some 25 metres down a busy road, and struck two pedestrians.

A man and a woman admitted to hospital were confirmed dead a short while later.

The November 12 incident is among the latest in a series of accidents, some of them fatal, involving elderly drivers in Japan. Most accidents involve drivers mistaking the accelerator for the brake or driving the wrong direction.

Investigative sources in Uezu’s case said there are no signs of

the brakes being applied or a ­mechanical fault with the vehicle and the assumption is that Uezu pressed the accelerator instead of the brake.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for more action to address accident rates caused by drivers in the over-75 age group.

Although road accidents have declined in recent years, the number involving drivers aged 75 and over has risen from 7.4 per cent to 12.8 per cent over the last decade, according to the national police agency.

On October 21, a man aged 76 managed to get onto the wrong side of a motorway in Akita ­prefecture and collided with an oncoming lorry. The man and his two passengers were killed.

Later in October, 87-year-old Masaichi Goda drove into a line of children walking to school in Yokohama, killing a boy aged six and injuring another six.

Last month, a woman was killed and two more sustained serious injuries after being run over by a man aged 84 in Tochigi prefecture, while two customers in a shop in Tokyo were injured when a man in his 80s drove through the window.

There are an estimated 17 million Japanese aged 65 or older who have driving licences.

Revisions to the Road Traffic Law are due to go into effect from March next year, with anyone 75 or older required to obtain a certificate of competence to drive if standard cognitive ability check-ups conducted every three years indicate that their memory or judgment are impaired.

Elderly drivers will also be ­required to undergo a test if they are involved in an accident. Anyone diagnosed as suffering from dementia will automatically have their licence revoked.

The revisions have proved controversial, however, particularly in rural parts of the country where rail or bus links are sparse or non-existent.

Under a scheme launched in Aichi prefecture in central Japan, elderly drivers will be given discounts on ramen noodles at 176 outlets of the Sugakiya restaurant chain, but only after they surrender their driver’s licence.

A similar campaign in Tokyo awards “graduation” certificates to retiring drivers in recognition of their decades behind the wheel, according to Rocket News 24. Holders are reportedly entitled to discounts on bus and taxi fares.

Nationwide, about 270,000 people surrendered their licences in the past year, but that is still only a tiny proportion of the total number of older motorists.

In early November, Taa Shinen, a 97-year-old Buddhist priest, led by example by publicly handing in his driver’s licence to police.

“I hope you will surrender your driver’s licence and live to the end of your natural lives,” he said in comments aimed at fellow older drivers, according to the Jiji news website. “Even if I’m careful about driving safely, there’s a chance I could cause an accident ... It’s stupid to try to maintain your licences just out of pride,” he added.

Additional reporting by The Guardian