End of the roadJapan is trying to get doddering drivers to give up their licences
But lots of old motorists are refusing to come quietly
AFTER nearly half a century behind the wheel, Hisao Matsumoto, who is 85, is not ready to stop driving. He and his wife depend on their car to escape the confines of Hakone, the lakeside town where they live. Horror stories of pile-ups involving elderly drivers do not ruffle him. “I’m not that old yet,” he says. “I still have 15 more years to go till I reach 100.”
Mr Matsumoto is one of more than 5m drivers in Japan aged 75 or older. A million more will be on the roads by 2021. Unnerved, the police are trying to coax many out of their cars. Over-75s are twice as likely to cause a fatal accident as younger drivers, says the National Police Agency (NPA). Nearly half of older drivers who caused fatal accidents last year had signs of cognitive impairment.
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Hundreds of older drivers turn the wrong way into motorways every year. In January an 85-year-old man steered his vehicle into oncoming traffic on a country road, hitting a car and mowing down two schoolgirls. Police believe he mistook the accelerator for the brake. The man’s family said he had long resisted their pleas to hand over his keys.
Such stubbornness is common, notes Kazunori Iwakoshi, who heads an NGO that supports elderly drivers. Motorists now in their mid-70s were born after the war and helped drive Japan’s economic rebirth, he says. Many have never had an accident and resent being cast aside.
Since last March over-75s renewing their licences must take cognitive tests to screen for dementia. Tests are also mandatory after telltale violations, such as ignoring road signs. The NPA expects these changes to take 15,000 drivers off the road each year. It would also like to limit elderly drivers to cars with automatic braking systems.
Nagging families may be more effective. More than 250,000 over-75s surrendered their licences last year. Many were pushed down to the local police station by relatives, says Mr Iwakoshi. His organisation publishes a checklist for elderly drivers, aimed at getting them to gauge their responses themselves.
The Matsumotos are lucky. Hakone gives pensioners unlimited access to public transport for ¥10,000 ($94) a year. Thousands of elderly people are stuck in rural communities with no buses. Next year, Mr Matsumoto says, he may give up his car, which costs him over ¥500,000 a year. But he’ll keep his licence just in case. He has just passed his driving test again.This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline "End of the road"