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Japan Moves to Increase Testing of Older Drivers

The following is a guest post by Sayuri Umeda, a senior foreign law specialist at the Law Library of Congress who covers Japan and jurisdictions in South East Asia. She has previously written blog posts on “Sentencing of Parents who Kill Children in Japan; Cambodian Law – Global Legal Collection Highlights; “English Translations of Post-Second World War South Korean Laws; “Laws and Regulations Passed in the Aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake“; and “Japanese Family Law – Global Legal Collection Highlights.”

It is well known that the life expectancy of people in Japan is one of the highest in the world. This of course contributes to there being an aging population in the country, which is also occurring in a number of other places around the world. In 2013, the total population of Japan was 127.30 million. Of this total, the number of people aged 65 and over was 31.90 million, about 25 percent of the population. Those aged 75 and over made up more than 12 percent of the total population, and this is projected to increase to more than 25 percent by 2060. As the number of older people increases, the number of older drivers also increases, leading to some difficult policy questions.

The Diet (Japan’s parliament) recently amended the Road Traffic Act (Act No. 105 of 1960) to allow for more frequent checks of the cognitive functions of people aged 75 and over. This led me to take a look at the approaches of various U.S states and the United Kingdom, as I was aware that these jurisdictions also have specific rules related to older drivers. I wondered whether the Japanese government has a very different stance when it comes to checking the capabilities of such drivers.

Justice McReynolds celebrates 76th birthday. Washington, D.C., February 3. Appearing the best of health, Associate Justice James Clark McReynolds of the United States Supreme Court, celebrated his 76th birthday today. Driving his own car he is shown leaving his home for the Supreme Court, 2/3/38 (Harris & Ewing, Feb. 3, 1938). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.29104.

“Justice McReynolds celebrates 76th birthday. Washington, D.C., February 3. Appearing the best of health, Associate Justice James Clark McReynolds of the United States Supreme Court, celebrated his 76th birthday today. Driving his own car he is shown leaving his home for the Supreme Court, 2/3/38” (Harris & Ewing, Feb. 3, 1938). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.29104.

In the United States, “the number of elderly drivers is expected to explode in coming years.”  According to the American Automobile Association, by 2030 “85% to 90% of the 70 million Americans older than 65 are projected to have driver’s licenses.” In the United Kingdom, it was reported in 2013 that “the number of over-70s who hold a UK driving licence has exceeded four million for the first time.”

The reason for there being some concerns about older drivers is that “as a result of impairments in three functions that are important for driving – vision, cognition and motor function – older drivers have a higher crash risk than middle aged adults.”   The U.S. data shows that “their per capita fatal crash rates begin to increase at age 70” and “per mile traveled, crash rates and fatal crash rates also start increasing at about age 70.”

In the U.S., thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have special provisions for older drivers. In addition to reduced or waived renewal fees for driver’s licenses, the provisions include:

  • Accelerated renewal frequency for driver’s licenses;
  • Restrictions on online or mailed renewals;
  • Vision tests; and
  • Road tests.

A survey of relevant state laws indicates that, in addition to age-specific license renewal requirements, “[i]f a person’s appearance or demeanor at renewal raises concerns or there is a history of crashes or violations or reports by physicians, police or others, state licensing agencies may require renewal applicants to undergo physical or cognitive exams or to retake the standard licensing tests (vision, written or road).” The licensing agency has the authority to remove or restrict the license.  According to the survey, “[t]ypical restrictions prohibit nighttime driving or limit driving to specified places or within a specific radius from the driver’s home. Licensing agencies also have the authority to shorten the renewal cycle for individual license holders.”

In the UK, drivers who reach 70 years of age must renew their licenses more frequently than younger drivers: every three years instead of every ten. Also, in general, drivers must tell the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) (or the Driver and Vehicle Agency in Northern Ireland) about any medical conditions that may affect their ability to drive safely.  When someone has informed the DVLA or DVA of a medical condition or disability, the authority will decide whether to issue a license, whether to issue a license for a shorter period (one, two, or three years with a review at the end of the period), whether the person’s car should be adapted in some way, or whether the license should be refused or revoked.

For a number of years, Japan has had similar procedures for older drivers when they come to renew their licenses. Under a 1993 Road Traffic Act amendment, although the license renewal period for drivers without traffic violation records was extended from three to five years, the renewal period for drivers aged 70 and over remained three years. (Road Traffic Act art. 92-2, amended by Act No. 43 of 1993.) As a result of a 1997 Road Traffic Act amendment, drivers aged 75 and over were obligated to take a specific class that explains how aging affects driving when they renewed their driver’s licenses. (Road Traffic Act art. 101-4, amended by Act No. 41 of 1997.) All drivers in Japan must take a class at the time of renewing their driver’s license, but the class for older drivers is more detailed and takes a longer time. The amended provision became effective in October 1998.  The starting age to take the specific class was lowered to 70 by a Road Traffic Act amendment in 2001. (Road Traffic Act art. 101-4, amended by Act No. 51 of 2001.)

A 2007 Road Traffic Act amendment then went one step further. Under this amendment, drivers aged 75 years or older were obligated to take a cognitive function test to renew their license, effective June 1, 2009. (Road Traffic Act, art. 101-4, para. 2, amended by Act No. 90 of 2007.) There are three categories of test results: low memory and cognitive function; slightly low memory and cognitive function; and no concern about memory and cognitive function. The test result was not intended to be used to prevent a person from renewing their license. Instead, based on the test, instructors would give individualized advice to drivers. However, if the driver whose test result suggested a low level of cognitive function commits a traffic violation that is typical to persons with low cognitive ability, such as running a red light or ignoring a stop sign, the driver must take a further test or submit a medical report.

The government evaluated the effect of the implementation of this cognitive function test, and the result was positive. It was found that the accident ratio involving drivers aged 75 years or older decreased. The government then took one more step with the passage of the most recent amendment.

It appears that the 2015 amendment (Act No. 40 of 2015) to the Road Traffic Act changed the purpose of the cognitive function test from enabling individualized advice to be given to actually screening the older people. It will enable the prefectural Public Safety Commissions (the authorities that issue driver’s licenses) to order drivers aged 75 and over whose cognitive function test result shows a possibility of dementia to submit a medical report. (Road Traffic Act art. 102, para. 2, amended by Act No. 40 of 2015.) In addition, under the amended Act, a Committee may order a person aged 75 and over who has committed certain traffic violations (those that a person whose cognitive function is impaired tends to commit) to take a cognitive function test unless the person took the test at the renewal of his or her driver’s license within the previous three months. (Id. art. 101-7, paras 1 & 2, amended by Act No. 40 of 2015.) If the test result suggests the person’s cognitive function may affect his or her driving ability, the person must take classes. (Id. art. 101-7. para. 4, amended by Act No. 40 of 2015.) If the test result suggests the possibility of dementia, the Committee can order the person to take an aptitude test or submit a medical report. (Id. art. 102, para. 3, amended by Act No. 40 of 2015.)

It seems that the government is particularly concerned about drivers with dementia. In 2014, there were 224 cases of people driving in the wrong direction on highways. Among them, in 27 cases, drivers had dementia and were over 60 years old. The Ministry of Health predicts that the number of older people with dementia will jump up to 7 million in 2025, from 4.6 million in 2012. Also, while the total number of fatal traffic accidents has decreased in Japan, the number of fatal traffic accidents caused by a driver aged 75 or over has increased. Comparing the numbers from 2003 and 2013, the number increased by 20 percent and the ratio to total cases increased from 5.5 percent to 11.9 percent. Among the 458 cases in 2013, seven drivers were suspected to have dementia and 135 drivers were suspected to have lower memory or judgment ability.

Of course, there are older people in Japan who do not really want to drive, but who find that there is no other means of transportation. Public transportation may not serve their transportation needs very well, especially outside large cities. Because transportation infrastructure is not within the jurisdiction of the National Police Agency (NPA), the NPA has previously not been involved in public transportation policy and administration. However, as the NPA strictly regulates older people’s driver’s licenses, the NPA was convinced that it must voice these issues. The NPA has instructed prefectural police to actively participate in local government committees on public transportation with the aim of improving such services.

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