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Japan is known for having one of the world’s most efficient and comprehensive public transport systems, but it’s also a nation of drivers and car-lovers, with nearly 80 million vehicles on the road. Now, as one of the planet’s most aged nations, with one in five citizens aged 70 or older, it is facing a sensitive problem: how do you keep traffic accidents down as people get older?

It’s an important question: last year in Japan the proportion of fatal traffic accidents caused by drivers 75 or older rose to 14.8%, up from 8.7% in 2008. And although last year overall traffic deaths in Japan were the lowest since 1948, over-65s made up a record high of 56% of the total deaths that did occur.

According to a Japanese government report in June, drivers 75 or older caused more than double the number of fatal accidents in 2018 than younger drivers did. More specifically, the over-75s caused 8.2 fatal crashes per every 100,000 on the road, “about 2.4 times the number caused by those aged 74 or younger”.

Deadly accidents involving older drivers continue to make national news. Right now in Japan, over-75s must take a cognitive test every three years before they can successfully get their licence renewed, and proposals over the summer aim to allow elders to only drive cars with advanced automatic braking systems.

Yet despite unilateral safety efforts, the biggest issue remains that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to keeping elders driving safely. That’s because not every human at the same age or life stage is going to be the same. “You can’t say at X point in someone’s chronological age, they are likely to experience specific declines,” says Alana Officer, a disability and rehabilitation coordinator at the World Health Organization.

Plus, some studies show that the youngest drivers are more dangerous than the eldest; that same Japanese government report from June found that drivers aged 16 to 19 were the most dangerous group, causing 11.1 fatal accidents per every 100,000 licenced drivers. What’s more, the higher risk of elders dying in a car crash could also be due to increased age-related susceptibility to medical complications.

Officer says that if you have policy that is strictly tied to age – perhaps revoking licences for all people over a certain age in the name of public safety – you run the risk of ageist laws that discriminate.

So what can be done and what is Japan doing? The answers aren’t clear cut, but a mix of mindful policy and new technologies may indicate a path for the future.

An older driver caused a multi-injury accident in Kobe after crashing into a monument. Similar accidents caused by elder drivers are prevalent across Japan (Credit: Alamy)

You can’t say at X point in someone’s chronological age, they are likely to experience specific declines - Alana Officer

A need for independence – and respect

Discussions with older family members about giving up driving can be difficult for people in any country. “It’s important to take steps that support public safety, while treating older drivers with dignity,” says Toshiko Kaneda, senior research associate at Population Reference Bureau, a not-for-profit in Washington, DC that analyses population trends and statistics.

In Shimizu, Shizuoka, in south-central Japan, Toyota quality advisor and car salesperson Tomomi Makino has seen the toll the lifestyle change takes on older drivers first-hand. She’s blogged about her experiences with older customers and says more are opting to give up their licences by choice. When this happens, the car dealer comes to their house to drive the car back to the dealership to be sold back.

Elderly residents get some government benefits – discounts on taxis and buses, for example – but saying goodbye to driving can be emotional. Makino recalls one customer who called because he was giving up his licence and needed her to take his car away. He told her on the phone: “I should stop before I hurt somebody”. When Makino showed up, she said the man broke down in tears.

“Many people easily discuss that elderly drivers should return their driver’s licence – but we shouldn’t forget about those people’s feelings,” she says. Their car and driving have “become an essential part of their life”.

In 2017, more than 400,000 elderly people in Japan gave up their licenses, the highest number since the programme was introduced in 1998, according to an analysis of National Police Agency statistics. But Hidenori Arai, president of Japan’s National Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology, doesn’t think the uptick in licence-surrendering is a “good trend”. In a country where the number of people living with dementia is estimated to be five million, he favours periodic cognitive tests for older drivers, as well as re-training driving skills “to extend their driving years”.

Losing licences can hit elderly people in rural areas – where older populations are biggest and public transport can be limited – especially hard. “Without a car, they cannot survive,” says Arai. “They cannot go shopping or see their friends and so on. To enjoy life, a car is necessary. Even [though] some older people are aware of their impaired driving skills, they need to keep driving a car for their daily life.”

As elderly drivers cause an increasing number of accidents on Japan's roads, driving schools for the aged have sprung up to retrain drivers (Credit: Getty Images)

Compromise through innovation

So what’s being planned to curb the number of accidents, but also keep seniors active? Taxis that could drive themselves, for one.

In recent years, Japanese car and tech companies have ramped up research in this arena, focusing specifically on helping seniors. (They also want to have some of these robot taxis ready to shuttle foreign visitors between Tokyo sport venues in time for the 2020 Summer Olympics.) Road tests for self-driving vehicles started in 2016, when human-free Priuses wound their way around roads in tiny seaside towns and other rural areas.

Elders have long been one of the primary audiences for driverless cars. Elsewhere in the world, a start-up called Voyage has raised tens of millions of dollars to test fleets in retirement communities, like a 40-square-mile community of 125,000 in Florida.

Many people easily discuss that elderly drivers should return their driver’s licence – but we shouldn’t forget about those people’s feelings - Tomomi Makino

But we’re still years away from self-driving cars becoming a realistic and readily available solution. In the shorter term, besides those periodic cognitive tests, police departments are trying to roll out a ‘limited driver’s licence’ for those who do have impaired cognitive functions or driving skills. They can drive, but only certain types of cars with special, built-in safety supports: an automatic braking system, for instance. (A common cause of fatal accidents among older drivers is mixing up the brake pedal with the accelerator.)

In the shorter term, companies are working on tailoring new cars to fit the needs of the elderly. This month, Toyota debuted a tiny two-seater electric car designed for short drives that tops out at 60kph, specifically targeting older motorists who want to remain active.

Japan has made it a priority to expedite the arrival of self-driving vehicles to its roads, which can assist the country's growing number of elderly drivers (Credit: Getty Images)

A solution for all

For years, Japan has required particular bumper stickers to be placed on the cars of both beginner and elderly drivers to identify them to fellow motorists. These stickers essentially function as a heads-up to others on the road.

Although these can be helpful signals in some situations, WHO’s Alana Officer says that governments have to be careful labelling either side of the age spectrum as traffic scourges without offering any solutions. Otherwise, she says, it’s a slippery slope to discriminatory laws.

For effective change, Officer echoes Arai’s call for a more comprehensive plan that enables older drivers to adapt to their new life stage and keep them driving longer. She points to continued driving education, as well as occupational therapy to help drivers with restricted head movements caused by conditions like osteoarthritis better check left and right, plus assistive technologies or car modifications.

“If you build people’s cognitive capacity, it has great promise to extend to safe driving,” she says, like safeguarding one’s ability to multitask, the key skill used in driving. “I think a lot of what we need to do is not classify older people within those categories, but [rather, look at] what is it about the ageing process that requires specific policies that enable people to continue to make choices to drive safely?”

No matter where you are in the world, coming to terms with possibly ending your driving career can be a hard pill to swallow. It’s a difficult adjustment to make, especially if there’s not sufficient policy in place to help you make it. Yet in Japan, it’s one that a growing proportion of the population will be facing.

“For some, it could be nostalgia. Today’s older adults witnessed the rise of the auto industry and may have been part of the early wave of people getting driver’s licences in the 1960s and ‘70s,” says the Population Reference Bureau’s Kaneda. “It’s the end of an era, in some ways.”

Additional reporting by Chie Kobayashi in Tokyo.

Bryan Lufkin is BBC Worklife's features writer. Follow him on Twitter @bryan_lufkin.

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