When a car driven by an 83-year-old woman struck and killed two people in a hospital parking lot in Tachikawa, Tokyo, on Nov 12, the inevitable reaction was, “Again?” Shukan Shincho (Nov 24) surveys the pertinent day-after headlines in six major newspapers. All contain the word “mata” (again).
The word has few synonyms. This is not ordinarily a problem but was – again – the very next day, Nov 13, when an out-of-control car driven by another motorist in his 80s caused another fatality, the victim a woman riding a bicycle in Koganei, Tokyo. Headline writers’ skills are being stretched to the limit.
It just keeps happening. The two episodes above are among six in the past month. On Oct 21, a 76-year-old man killed himself and two passengers of a truck he collided with while driving on the wrong side of an expressway in Akita Prefecture. The following week, an 87-year-old man drove his truck into a group of elementary school children, killing one and injuring six. Nov 10: one woman killed, two women injured by a car driven by an 84-year-old near a hospital in Tochigi Prefecture. Nov 11: two shoppers injured in Tokyo when an 84-year-old rammed his car into a convenience store.
In an aging society, drivers, too, are aging. There were 62 fatal traffic accidents involving drivers 80 or over in 1993, according to statistics quoted by Shukan Shincho. In 2014, there were 266 – two every three days, with no end in sight to the surge in the number of elderly drivers. As of the end of last year, 1.96 million people 80 or over were licensed drivers.
Maybe the most dangerous thing about them is that most of them think they’re okay. They may well not be, says Tokyo University medical school neuro-pathologist Takeshi Iwatsubo – even if they don’t have dementia. Reflexes slow and vision dims with age, he says. An aged driver is more likely than a younger one to panic at the unexpected – and hit the accelerator instead of the brake, for example, which is what seems to have happened in the Tachikawa accident.
Statistics bear that out. Drivers 80 and over are involved in 3.75 times more fatal accidents than drivers 64 or under.
Dementia is suspected as a factor in two of the six accidents recapped above. Legal measures in place to keep potentially dangerous elderly drivers off the roads seem ludicrously inadequate. Drivers 70 and over, when renewing their licenses, must sit through lectures and submit to vision tests. At 75 a mandatory test of cognitive functions kicks in. Results are arranged in three categories: (1) no problem; (2) some deterioration; (3) likely dementia. As of now, shockingly enough, drivers found to be in category 3 don’t have their licenses revoked; they are not even sent on for further medical testing – unless they are subsequently involved in an accident or violation. Next March an amendment to the Road Traffic Law will close that loophole. How many preventable accidents will occur between now and then?
And how effective will the new law be? Not very, Iwatsubo fears. Dementia, he tells Shukan Shincho, is expanding at the rate of roughly 50,000 patients a year. That’s an enormous potential caseload, he says, for the 2000-odd medical experts competent to deal with them.© Japan Today