Japan Focuses on Innovation to Empower Elderly Drivers

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Japan is turning to technology to help prevent traffic accidents caused by elderly drivers in the country, a growing problem as the population ages. Orix Auto Corp. offers a service that enables senior citizens to measure their abilities behind the wheel via personal computers and smartphones. With Ever Drive, the company collects data on driving behavior using a device fitted to the vehicle that measures the frequency of sudden braking and acceleration as well as speeding in order to visualize the risks. The monthly fee is ¥2,980.

A man seated on a wheelchair and a woman kneeling smiling at him

The Whill wheelchair has helped many elderly people with mobility issues. | COURTESY OF WHILL INC. / VIA KYODO

“When we started the service in 2017, we had anticipated users would be professionals such as taxi drivers and truck drivers, but more than 80 percent of the current users are the elderly aged from their late 70s to early 80s,” a company official said. The person said the service is providing an opportunity for family members to begin a conversation to convince elderly drivers to give up their licenses.

“When a parent and their offspring talk about returning the parent’s license, they often get into emotional arguments, with the child saying it is dangerous for the elderly person to drive and the parent arguing that he or she can still drive safely,” the official said. “If Ever Drive is used, they can cite specific numbers in their discussions, so there is the upside that they both can feel more convinced,” the official said.

For seniors who have given up driving, cutting-edge powered wheelchairs offer an alternative, enabling them to move freely around the neighborhood. “Now I enjoy going out, since I can easily go to the convenience store or drug store,” said 91-year-old Akio Takahashi, a Tokyo resident who tested the powered wheelchair, called “Whill,” in May.

In April, an elderly driver killed a 3-year-old girl and her mother and injured nine other passersby in an accident in central Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district. Around the same time, Takahashi saw a newspaper ad for the wheelchair. The suggested retail price was ¥450,000, but the ad said it could be rented for a limited period for around ¥10,000 a month. Whill Inc. started receiving more inquiries following the fatal accident in Ikebukuro, according to company officials.

The wheelchair can move forward, backward and rotate — all with the use of one lever. For braking, the wheelchair stops when the lever is released. Since it is more compact than standard powered wheelchairs, it can also fit inside apartment elevators.

Takahashi gave up his driver’s license at the age of 85, although he was still confident in his driving ability and had a spotless record. In the end, his family persuaded him to stop driving, noting that his driving skills would deteriorate as he ages and possibly lead to “something unthinkable happening.”

“In the balance of things, I put a priority on safety over inconvenience,” Takahashi said, adding that he used to find it difficult to go outside without a car. Supporting himself with a cane, he would often be out of breath after walking several hundred meters. After acquiring Whill he was newly able to travel around the neighborhood as he did in the past. He said he would like to keep the pricey wheelchair with the help of his nursing care insurance.

According to a government survey released in June on the transport habits of people aged 60 or above, 1 in 4 people aged 80 or older still drives. A government report on traffic safety, which also came out the same month, showed that people aged 75 or older caused fatal traffic accidents at twice the rate of those under 75 in 2018. The government has been calling on elderly drivers to return their licenses voluntarily, and more do so every year. But a top police official said it is difficult to push the elderly to return their licenses, especially in areas where cars play a vital role in daily life.

One expert committee set up by the National Police Agency has suggested limiting some elderly people to driving in the vicinity of their homes as an alternative to voluntarily returning their licenses. But committee members have yet to determine what conditions should apply.

Originally Published in the Japan Times

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