Japan’s demographic time bomb – largely made up of seniors and a shortage of working taxpayers – is often recognized as an economic crisis. But such consequences in the industrialized world’s fastest-graying society are playing out in other surprising ways, such as an increase in fatal traffic accidents with senior citizens at the wheel.
Japanese media reported about the fight of a Tokyo man for justice after his wife and daughter were mowed down along with ten other pedestrians by an 88-year-old driver. Now dealing with manslaughter charges, the frail retired bureaucrat plowed into a crowded downtown crosswalk. Police discovered no evidence to support claims the car had mechanical issues, contrary to the claims made by the driver.
His victim included Mana Matsunaga, 31, and her three-year-old daughter, Riko, cycling their residence from a day at the park.
“If my wife was still conscious as she was thrown into the air, her only thought was surely whether our daughter was safe,” the husband and father, who has refused to give his full name, said in the interview with Japan’s TBS TV.
For most of the Japanese public, the tragedy underscored an increasing sense that the country is under siege, by its own aged motorists. There is even a grim new genre of dashcam videos, dubbed “rogai,” which translates as: “problems caused by senior citizens”. The clips posted online show seniors crashing into building. driving the wrong way and other types of havoc.
Japan’s 75-plus driving population is its way to rise over 7 million in the next few years. An estimated one-quarter of octogenarians are still on the road. During the last decade, the country has seen over a 6% increase in fatal collisions caused by senior citizens.
That’s regardless of dementia screening for drivers 75 and over, and regional campaigns trying to coax seniors to give up their driver’s licenses, sometimes in exchange for free bus passes or other enticements. These attempts have made little progress, especially in rural locations lacking public transportation.
Recently, the Japanese government authorized legislation aimed in part at decreasing fatal accidents involving elderly drivers.
Humbled by the backlash, some seniors are returning to drivers-ed. A recent one-day class in Tokyo provided by the Japan Automobile Federation drew 150 applicants for 16 locations. Over four hours, seniors negotiated traffic cones, practiced sudden stops, and figured out how to ease out of alleys, to compensate for blind spots.
Makoto Danno, 80, concedes that his wife asks him to stop driving, but he says he’s not ready, arguing that he’s “been driving for years” without any issues.
A classmate in her 70s, Masako Horiguchi, stated she felt unfairly tarred by public sentiment against drivers of her generation. Without a car, she said, life would be hard. “I had a spinal operation,” she stated, “I can’t walk very far.”
Advanced collision-avoidance systems are becoming common in the recent car models, but majority vehicles on the road here still don’t have such automated safeguards. So Tokyo now covers the cost of setting up after-market devices, which suppress acceleration when motorists mistakenly hit the gas pedal in place of the brake. In a recent test ride at the Autobacs Shinonome A-pit store, manager Chino Naokatsu revealed to a reporter that how the device performs during a spin around the parking garage, typical of the low-speed areas where mistaken acceleration collisions often take place. He suddenly floored the gas, but the vehicle crept along at just 6 mph.
If the Japanese government has its way, seniors would be trading in their full-sized cars for a little vehicle like Toyota’s Coms. Resembling a golf cart, it has drafty ziplock doors, no radio, and one seat for the driver. But with a top speed of 30 mph, the ultra-compact electric vehicle can be mainly used as a car for a trip to the store.
The government is looking forward to subsidizing purchases of tiny vehicles such as this, as it tries to lure more seniors away from their sedans.
The bill recently approved by the legislature would force drivers 75 and over who have driving offenses on their records to pass a road test when they renew their licenses. If authorized, it will also make it necessary for those senior drivers to use only cars geared up with the advanced safety features.