By Munenori Inoue and Yohei Kano / Yomiuri Staff WritersIn response to a spate of accidents caused by elderly drivers around the country, the government is moving toward introducing a license that restricts drivers to so-called safe-driving support vehicles, which have features such as automatic brakes and functions that limit acceleration when the wrong pedal is pressed.
How to standardize the various capabilities offered by different manufacturers is considered key.
“We will proceed with countermeasures that incorporate the development of new technologies,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a June 18 meeting of Cabinet ministers involved in traffic safety, during which he expressed a desire to introduce safe-driving support vehicle licenses.
According to the National Police Agency, drivers 75 and older caused 460 fatal accidents in the past year. The most common cause was a “handling mistake” in 136 accidents, or 29.6 percent of the total.
Drivers aged 75 and above caused almost five times more accidents involving drivers mistakenly stepping on the accelerator or brake than drivers under 75 years old.
In April, an 88-year-old former director of the now-defunct Industrial Science and Technology Agency lost control of his car and killed a mother and child in the Ikebukuro district of Tokyo.
The man reportedly told investigators he may have mistakenly pressed the accelerator instead of the brake pedal. His car did not have safety features such as automatic brakes.
“Automatic brakes might have prevented the accident,” an investigative source said. Handling mistakes stand out as a common cause of accidents involving elderly drivers.
In emergency measures formulated June 18, the government is to consider this year whether to require new vehicles to have automatic brakes and whether to introduce a performance accreditation system for equipment to restrict acceleration when the wrong pedal is pressed.
The government is to reach a conclusion of relevant discussions on the restricted license for safe-driving support vehicles by the end of fiscal 2019.
According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, while about 45 percent of new vehicles were equipped with automatic brakes in 2015, this figure rose to about 80 percent in 2017.
The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry and others have defined vehicles with only automatic brakes as a “safety support car” and those with other equipment, such as acceleration support, as a “safety support car S,” which is what people with restricted licenses would be able to drive.
As of the end of March, at least 150 models sold by eight domestic automakers fell under the safety support car S category. These include light automobiles such as the Move made by Daihatsu Motor Co., minivans such as the Step WGN made by Honda Motor Co. and luxury cars such as Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus.
However, different manufacturers offer varying specifications, such as the sensor precision levels and stopping differences of automatic brakes. If sensor precision is too high, for example, a vehicle would brake automatically if a falling leaf was detected in its path.
Different makers are also marketing different functions. Toyota has introduced equipment that brakes when a pedestrian or bicycle suddenly appears at night. Nissan Motor Co. has installed equipment in its light vehicles that triggers the automatic brakes when the accelerator and brake pedals are mistakenly pressed. Subaru Corp. is developing technology that would prevent collisions at intersections where accidents are more likely to occur.
Before introducing a restricted license, uniform standards will need to be created for the various capabilities offered by different automakers. The NPA plans to work with the transportation ministry to create such standards.
“Driving-assist technology such as automatic brakes will probably develop further in the future. On the other hand, comprehensive measures will be needed for elderly people in rural areas with decreasing public transportation options who cannot afford such vehicles, including securing them a means of transportation,” said J.F. Oberlin University Prof. Hajime Tozaki, an expert on transport policy.
An expert panel formed by the NPA in 2017 has 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 only during daytime. Authorities consult with license-holders to determine whether to switch to a separate restricted license. The U.S. state of Iowa is introducing a license that has restrictions on area, time and other factors.
Japan introduced a license that limited drivers to automatic transmissions in 1991. According to the NPA, about 14.96 million people had this type of license as of the end of last year. Other restrictions include those on the use of corrective lenses. However, nowhere in the world is there a restricted license that applies to cutting-edge technology.
Elderly drivers aged 75 and older are not expected to be the only people eligible for the restricted license. The government is considering making the license available 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 senior police official said.
Cost is another issue. According to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, the average price of a light vehicle rose from about ¥1.37 million in April 2017 to about ¥1.42 million this 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 the proliferation of support vehicles. Kagawa Prefecture offers a ¥30,000 subsidy to qualified people who buy driver support vehicles, the first such system in the country. Speech