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Measures against accidents by Japan's elderly drivers advance after hundreds of deaths

This June 4, 2019 file photo shows the scene after a fatal car accident caused by a diver in his 80s driving the wrong way through an intersection in the city of Fukuoka. (Mainichi/Noriko Tokuno)

OSAKA -- Following a spate of serious traffic accidents across Japan involving elderly drivers, the government is stepping up countermeasures, promoting the spread of vehicles equipped with automatic braking, among other initiatives.

    While the number of elderly people voluntarily returning their licenses is increasing, cars remain indispensable for daily life in some areas. Experts accordingly underscore the need to create environments where people can get around without a car.

    A toppled vending machine is seen after a car rammed into it, in front of the Konomiya Sayama supermarket in the city of Osakasayama, Osaka Prefecture, on Nov. 17, 2021. (Mainichi/Daiki Takikawa)

    According to the National Police Agency, there were 333 fatal accidents nationwide caused by drivers aged 75 and over in 2020, accounting for 13.8% of the total.

    In Tokyo's Ikebukuro district in April 2019, the elderly retired head of the Agency of Industrial Science and Technology of the former Ministry of International Trade and Industry caused a car accident that killed a mother and her daughter and injured nine others. The man was sentenced to five years' imprisonment. When he was taken into custody, he admitted that he had confused the brake and accelerator. In June the same year, a minivan driver in his 80s sped the wrong way through an intersection in the city of Fukuoka. Ten people were caught in the resulting accident, which also claimed the lives of the driver and his wife.

    Countermeasures against accidents by elderly drivers are a pressing issue. While the government is calling for elderly drivers to return their licenses, it will require new model cars to be fitted with automatic braking systems from this month. In May 2022, drivers aged 75 and over who have over a certain level of traffic violations on their record will be required to pass a practical test when renewing their license. A limited license system that allows drivers to drive only if the vehicle is fitted with safe driving support technology will also be introduced.

    This photo from security camera footage shows the white car, right, driven by an elderly driver, that suddenly accelerated into the premises of a supermarket, hitting three people, in the city of Osakasayama, Osaka Prefecture, on Nov. 17, 2021.

    Seiji Abe, a professor at Kansai University who specializes in traffic safety, commented, "There are individual differences, but people's attention and reaction speed decline with age, so refraining from driving a car will lead to accident prevention."

    Many elderly people, however, live in areas where there are no supermarkets or hospitals near their homes, and for them, their cars are an indispensable part of daily life. To prevent accidents while maintaining convenience for such people, Abe said, "In addition to the spread of cars fitted with devices to prevent them from mistakenly accelerating, there's a need for local bodies and other organizations to proactively enhance transportation services going around those local areas."

    (Japanese original by Ryoko Kijima, Osaka City News Department)

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