One December day in 2016, an 80-year-old man drove to his neighborhood supermarket in rural Saitama Prefecture. In the parking lot, thinking to brake to let a woman pass, he hit the accelerator instead.
It was an early instance of the sort of accident that has been occurring lately with alarming frequency. In April, a car driven by a man in his late 80s struck and killed two mothers and a child at a pedestrian crossing in Tokyo. In Chiba in May, five nursery school children were injured by a car out of control. The driver was in his mid-60s. It seems to keep happening: drivers mistake the accelerator for the brake, with catastrophic consequences. No one has adequately explained how such a mistake is possible, let alone why it keeps recurring. Shukan Gendai (June 22-29) draws an appalling conclusion: “You never know when it can happen to you.”
Does “it” mean you can become a victim anytime, or a perpetrator? It could mean both.
“Koichi Yoneda” (a pseudonym) was horrified at what he’d done. The woman he struck, who was in her 50s, wasn’t dead, but she was seriously injured. An ambulance was called; the police arrived; the woman was taken to hospital and Yoneda arrested.
Generally these incidents are covered from the victim’s point of view, but Shukan Gendai takes us into Yoneda’s world. Its headline reveals its purpose: “Elderly drivers – are you aware of the suffering that results when you cause an accident?” The story goes on to prove that it’s not only the victim who suffers. Yoneda’s entire life has caved in.
He was soon released. Criminal court proceedings ended with a suspended sentence. The financial damage – the woman’s treatment came to some 12 million yen – was covered by insurance. In that sense, Yoneda got off lightly. Even his driver’s license was not terminated – only suspended for a year.
But there’s more to punishment than official sanctions. To begin with the driver’s license: though entitled to drive, he will never, he vows, touch the wheel of a car again. If only he had stopped driving in time! But how could he have known? In 60 years of driving he had never had an accident, never even got a speeding ticket. Shortly before the accident he’d renewed his license, taking the requisite test for dementia signs. He showed none.
His neighbors, with whom he’d always been on good terms, now shun him. There’s no malice in this, he tells Shukan Gendai. He quite understands them: “You can’t talk and laugh and pass the time of day with someone who has done damage like this.”
Ashamed to show his face, he took to almost never leaving the house. Staying home all day made him wretched. Going out made him more so. The strain intensified quarrels with his wife, who came to look on him with loathing. He was a “criminal,” and had tainted her too, she said, in the neighbors’ eyes. She eventually left him to live with their son and his family in Tokyo.
His deepest desire, he says, is to apologize in person to the woman he hit. She absolutely refuses to see him. To this day she can’t walk properly. “Every day I pray to the Buddha for her recovery,” says Yoneda.
Shukan Gendai’s point, in telling this story and others like it, is to warn aging drivers to surrender their licenses before similar disaster strikes them. But Yoneda himself is a case in point showing why so many hesitate to do so. His home is an hour’s walk from the nearest train station. Doing the normal rounds of daily life is extremely difficult without independent transportation – the more so as lower back and leg pain make walking so difficult. There are regular hospital visits, too, which without a car are so onerous. There’s bus service, which for want of anything better must do, but total reliance on it definitely constricts one’s horizons.
An additional hardship in Yoneda’s case: he shrinks from shopping at the supermarket where the accident happened, which makes him dependent on the one in the next town.
Bleakly, he contemplates his prospects. “There’s no hope for me, no hope at all,” he says.© Japan Today