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Spike in crashes involving elderly drivers spurs acceleration regulator sales boom

A Super Autobacs Shonan employee holds a sudden acceleration regulator at a shop in Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture, on June 10, 2019. (Mainichi/Misaki Morokuma)

OTSU -- The past few months in Japan have seen a spike in accidents involving elderly drivers hitting pedestrians and cyclists, including one tragic crash in April that took the lives of a 31-year-old woman and her 3-year-old daughter in Tokyo's Ikebukuro area. The crashes, often attributed to the driver getting the gas and brake pedals confused, have made national headlines, and apparently spurred a surge in demand for devices to prevent the mix-up.

According to Shiga Prefectural Police, while the number of traffic accidents caused by drivers aged 65 and over is trending downwards, they account for a growing share of total crashes in the prefecture.

"I hope various technologies can be used to prevent even one accident," said an officer in the force's traffic safety section.

Auto parts and accessories giant Autobacs Seven Co., which has some 600 stores nationwide, told the Mainichi Shimbun that sales of devices to prevent mixing up the brake and accelerator rose by 13 times over a roughly one-month period from April to May. May sales of the devices were 26 times what they were the same month last year. Locally, some types of the devices are sold out, and new stocks will not be available until the end of July.

The devices are attached to the cable that connects the accelerator with the engine, and restrict sudden speed-ups if the driver hits the gas while the vehicle is stopped or travelling at less than 10 kilometers per hour. A warning buzzer also sounds in the car. If the brake and the gas are pressed at the same time, the device prioritizes the brake.

According to staff at the Super Autobacs Shonan outlet in Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture, about 70% of customers buying the devices are in their 60s or 70s, with much of the remainder made up of adult children buying them for their parents. Including installation, the sudden acceleration regulators cost between 30,000 and 40,000 yen (about $280 to $370) before tax, and the shop has received a recent flood of inquiries about whether they are in stock and what vehicle models they are compatible with.

One 71-year-old barber visiting the shop said that in the roughly 45 years he has been behind the wheel, "I've never mistaken the gas for the brake, but I don't want to cause anyone any trouble in the future. So I came to get one" of the devices.

However, store staffer Yusuke Tanaka pointed out that "you can't just relax because you've installed one of these devices. It's important to stay cool and composed when driving."

According to the prefectural police's traffic planning section, drivers aged 65-plus caused 1,103 accidents in the prefecture in 2009, and 760 in 2018. However, the share of all accidents caused by this demographic rose from 12.5% to 18% over the same period.

"Traffic accidents are caused by momentary attention lapses, so we'd be pleased if the devices can prevent some crashes," said section general manager Kiyomi Hidaka. "However, if someone has any anxiety about driving, it's important not to get behind the wheel at all."

(Japanese original by Misaki Morokuma, Otsu Bureau)

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