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Old and deadly: Japan’s drive to beat elderly road menace

Kanuma, Japan | AFP | A series of fatal crashes caused by elderly drivers in Japan has left authorities desperately grappling for ways to clamp down on a problem that experts warn is only going to get worse as the population ages.

Drivers over 65 were responsible for 965 deadly accidents in Japan — more than a quarter of the total — in 2016, according to the National Police Agency.

In one of the most shocking cases, an 87-year-old crashed his truck into a group of schoolchildren killing a six-year-old and injuring others, prompting demands for action on the issue.

In tranquil countryside outside the town of Kanuma, north of Tokyo, on a track surrounded by rice paddies and mountains, a group of elderly drivers are taking public safety into their own hands and completing refresher courses behind the wheel.

The pensioners pilot their cars gingerly between cones while instructors bark out orders via loudspeaker through open car windows as high-tech sensors measure reaction times for emergency stops.

Emiko Takahashi, a 73-year-old woman taking the course, admitted she had “no confidence” in her driving as she got older.

“That’s why I came here,” she said, adding that she has no choice but to drive her ailing husband, seven years her senior, to hospital every day.

Takahashi said her ability to concentrate had declined as she aged and her reaction times have waned. “I have become slow,” she admitted.

– ‘Drive until I die’ –

Fatal accidents caused by geriatric drivers now account for 28.3 percent of the total, up from 17.9 percent a decade ago, NPA records state.

And with the elderly set to account for 40 percent of the population by 2060, there are increasing fears for public safety.

Authorities in some regions have resorted to novel ways to encourage some of the 4.8 million drivers over 75 in Japan to hand over their licence.

These include deals for cheaper funerals and discounts on ramen noodles, along with more conventional methods such as cheap or free taxis and buses.

But 67-year-old Kiyotaka Ukita, also taking part in the course, scoffed at these efforts.

“Free bus tickets aren’t attractive at all for older drivers to return their licences,” said Ukita, sporting a lengthy shock-white goatee beard.

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