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Japan plans driver's license for seniors as accidents rise

Restrictions will limit holders to cars equipped with safety features

This June 6 accident in the Japanese city of Nagoya was caused by an 87-year-old driver who later said he pressed too hard on the accelerator, according to police.

TOKYO -- The Japanese government is considering issuing restricted licenses that would limit the elderly to safety-enhanced vehicles in light of a surge in accidents attributed to the declining skills of senior drivers.

The new license would be issued on a voluntary basis to drivers aged 75 and older. Envisioned safety features include systems that automatically hit the brakes in an emergency if the operator fails to do so or accidentally steps on the gas pedal instead. The government will consult with automakers to hammer out details.

The proposal comes amid growing public calls to restrict driving by the elderly. Drivers aged 75 or older numbered 5.63 million at the end of 2018 and were responsible for roughly 15% of fatal crashes that year.

In downtown Tokyo this past April, an 87-year-old former senior bureaucrat struck and killed a mother and her young daughter in a crosswalk and injured nine others. While the driver reportedly said the accelerator got stuck, no problems were found with the car, leading police to suspect that he stepped on the gas pedal instead of the brakes.

This month, an 81-year-old and his wife were killed in a crash in the city of Fukuoka where his car ran into one vehicle before plowing into an intersection and hitting at least four others. Seven others, including a pedestrian, were injured.

Alarmed automakers are rushing to strengthen safety features. Toyota Motor will expand the range of models that can be retrofitted with a system to prevent or mitigate accidents caused by hitting the wrong pedal. The feature, which Toyota made available last December for cars already on the road, alerts drivers if a wall or other obstacle is in the car's way and limits acceleration if the gas pedal is pressed.

Toyota and Honda Motor also launched in June 2018 a system that automatically detects collisions, analyzes the severity and automatically notifies relevant emergency services. Nissan Motor, Subaru and Mazda Motor joined the initiative in March.

Under the current system, Japanese seniors can voluntarily give up their licenses or police can revoke the licenses of those diagnosed with dementia. While about 400,000 drivers aged 65 or older surrendered licenses last year, many more cannot, owing to such personal circumstances as needing to drive to work.

Out of concern about the potential impact of switching to mandatory restrictions, the government looks to initially limit itself to recommending that elderly drivers adopt the new licenses to show that they are driving cars with extra safety features.

Other countries allow for restrictions on when and how far seniors can drive. Drivers must undergo medical examinations every few years starting at age 75 in New Zealand and 70 in Ireland, with the government potentially imposing limits based on the results. Such tests are required in Germany and certain U.S. states for anyone seen as potentially unfit to drive, regardless of age. Similar requirements could become part of the discussion in Japan.

The government likely will also work with the private sector on adapting the auto insurance system for holders of senior licenses. Older drivers currently pay higher premiums, but insurers offer a 9% discount for vehicles with automatic emergency braking systems.

A limited license for seniors "should allow them to secure transportation while reducing accidents," said Ichiro Uchiyama, a psychology professor at Doshisha University.

But Uchiyama urged the government to consider introducing tests to help older drivers recognize when their capabilities are declining. "Our current technology can't prevent accidents caused by [mistakenly] going in reverse, for example," he warned.

The new license system is being included in the government's list of growth strategies to be approved by the cabinet this month. The National Police Agency and the economy and transport ministries will work out the details this fiscal year and look to implement it quickly, in 2020.

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