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Elderly drivers to get help from technology

TOKYO >> In response to a spate of accidents caused by elderly drivers around the country, Japan is working to introduce a license that restricts drivers to safe-driving support vehicles, which have features such as automatic brakes.

According to the National Police Agency, over the past year drivers 75 and older caused 460 fatal accidents. Elderly drivers caused almost five times more accidents than their younger counterparts, by mistakenly stepping on the accelerator or brake.

Last month, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry announced that it will require automatic brakes to be installed in new cars produced in Japan starting November 2021, and in imported new cars from June 2024. After public comment, it will revise regulations this month.

Automatic brake systems detect automobiles and people with a combination of cameras and radars to prevent or reduce collision damage. The percentage of new cars equipped with automatic brakes produced by Japanese car makers in 2018 was nearly 85%.

Vehicles with automatic brakes are deemed “safety support cars,” while those with additional features, such as acceleration support, are designated “safety support car S,” which people with restricted licenses would be able to drive.

In 2017, a panel formed by the police agency conducted fact-finding surveys on restricted licenses in seven countries.

Germany has a license that limits driving to within a certain radius of the driver’s home and is introducing a license that restricts drivers with poor eyesight to driving during daylight hours. In Iowa, a license being introduced implements restrictions based on area, time and other factors.

Elderly drivers aren’t necessarily the only ones who would receive a restricted license. The government is considering making it applicable to drivers of all ages.

“It’s not realistic to force everyone 75 and older to have a restricted license. We envision that incentives and other measures for elderly people with declining physical functions will encourage them to switch to a restricted license,” a police official said.

Cost, for instance, could make restricted licenses challenging for elderly drivers. According to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, the average price of a car rose from about 1.37 million yen ($12,650) in April 2017 to about 1.42 million yen ($13,125) this past April.

“Cars are essential in rural areas. I think we need a system to ensure safe driving, but buying a new car at my age is a heavy burden,” said a 79-year-old man from Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture, who said he drives every day for work.

Some municipalities are offering subsidies to encourage purchases of safe-driving support vehicles. Kagawa Prefecture offers a 30,000 yen ($280) subsidy to qualified people who buy such vehicles.

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