During the New Year holiday period, TV news reported a number of traffic accidents. One involved a driver who, while waiting for the traffic light to change, was rear-ended by a car traveling at a high rate of speed. Another mishap concerned a driver attempting to enter an expressway via the exit ramp. In both cases, elderly drivers were judged to be at fault.
A common type of accidents involving seniors behind the wheel is so-called pedal misapplication, also referred to as unintended acceleration or sudden acceleration syndrome.
Nikkan Gendai (Jan 19) recalled a highly publicized accident in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district that occurred on April 19, 2019, in which 87-year-old retired bureaucrat Kozo Iizuka lost control of his Toyota Prius, ran a red light and raced through two more intersections. He was estimated to have been traveling at about 96 kph at the time he struck the pedestrians, killing a mother and child and injuring nine others.
During his trial Iizuka repeatedly testified he "had no recollection" of continuing to press the gas pedal, and blamed the accident on some sort of vehicle malfunction. In September 2021, the court found the 90-year-old Iizuka guilty and sentenced him to five years imprisonment.
Be that as it may, the government has not issued any reports that specifically indicate elderly drivers suffer from a higher rate of accidents than do younger age segments.
Actually, writes Hideki Wada, a psychiatrist specializing in geriatric issues and author of last year's bestselling "Hachijissai no Kabe" (The Age 80 Barrier), to the extent that they are healthy, continuing to drive will help seniors ward off the ravages of age. And therefore they should resist pressure from the authorities to surrender their license and continue driving.
Are seniors really such a threat? Citing 2021 accident statistics broken down by age segment, Wada pointed out that drivers in the 16 to 19 year-old segment had 1,044 accidents per 100,000 population -- more than double that of drivers aged 80 to 84, who had 430 accidents per 100,000. And accidents among drivers aged 20 to 24 were still higher, at 606 per 100,000, than were accidents by drivers aged 85 and above, who had 524 accidents per 100,000.
The low accident rates among drivers in the age 65-69, 70-74 and 75-79 segments -- who are treated as elderly in government statistics -- compare favorably with younger and middle-aged adults.
Perhaps, writes Wada tongue-in-cheek, this explains why a 90-year-old man was hired to run drugs in the true-to-life 2018 Clint Eastwood film "The Mule."
According to research published by the National Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology driving is a healthy activity. This is borne out by a study finding that adults age 65 and older who had ceased driving had an eight-fold higher risk for requiring some degree of care, either at home or institutional, than did those who continued to operate a vehicle.
Another study conducted at Tsukuba University reported similar findings, with the ratio of seniors who ceased driving showing a 2.2-fold higher need for care than those who continued.
"Elderly persons who surrender their licenses and stop driving give up their means of mobility, which considerably reduces their range of movement," Wada writes. "In addition to lessening their interaction with others and social activities, degeneration in the functions of their legs and back becomes unavoidable, thereby diminishing their quality of life. Which ultimately leads to decline in brain activity."
Dr Wada believes the characteristic accidents among seniors such as pedal misapplication and driving up exit ramps may possibly be related to the prescribing of certain medications, and promises to take up that issue in a future column.© Japan Today