Railway accident that killed 74-year-old dementia patient offers lessons
The case of a 74-year-old woman with dementia who died in a railway crossing accident in October 2011 demonstrates the difficulties faced in protecting the lives of dementia sufferers.
The accident occurred at a railway crossing near Seibu Railway's Tanashi Station in Nishitokyo, Tokyo. Around 70,000 people a day use the station, which is at the heart of the western Tokyo city. In the evening, when the accident occurred, cars and people laden down with shopping bags can be seen forming lines at the busy crossing, which comprises four tracks and is 13 meters wide. The 74-year-old, a resident at a home for the elderly about 2 kilometers away, was struck and killed in the very middle of the crossing.
According to the Tanashi Police Station, around one hour before the accident, the woman left the care home on a walk with a fellow resident in his 60s. The man also had dementia, and there had been occasions in the past when care home staff had to search for the pair when they were late to return. For the most part, however, they were able to get home on their own.
To both respect the residents' human rights and assist in their treatment, the home allows its residents to enter and leave freely. The facility tells the families of the residents about this and asks residents who leave frequently to wear GPS tracking devices.
On the day of the accident, staff were concerned about the pair's late return and went out to look for the woman using her GPS locator. They were less than a hundred meters from the railway crossing when she was hit by the train.
"We were so close to finding her," said the then manager at the care home.
The moments before the accident were caught by security cameras, and senior police officers at the Tanashi Police Station tried to make sense of what the camera had recorded. The woman entered the crossing after her companion, immediately after which police believe the bell signaling an approaching train started to sound. The far crossing gate came down, and the woman pointed back the way they'd come, apparently a gesture to the man for them to go back.
The man exited the crossing by ducking under the far gate, but the woman returned the way she'd come before turning around at the gate and crossing the tracks again. It was then that she was struck by the train.
"I don't know if she knew she was in the crossing or not, but it seems she thought she couldn't go past a lowered crossing gate," speculates a senior police officer.
According to Seibu Railway Co., the crossing is equipped with sensors that detect objects on the tracks and notify trains of the danger, and with multiple emergency buttons that notify trains and stations of an emergency situation when pressed. However, the sensors are mainly meant for cars and don't respond to something the size of a human, and no one pushed any of the emergency buttons.
"We have the latest safety equipment installed, and there is not much more we can do," said a Seibu representative.
Professor Seiji Abe at the Faculty of Safety Science at Kansai University says, "It is important to know that this kind of accident is occurring. Railway companies should collect accident examples and research them. Another option is for the national government to create a committee to consider accident prevention measures."
Ryuji Okayama, who manages a home for the elderly and was previously involved with a project in Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture, to make that city safe for people with dementia, says, "If more people are understanding of those with dementia, communities will look after them better, which will prevent accidents. GPS is also effective, but I would like for entire communities to give their support."
January 13, 2014(Mainichi Japan)