Japan zeroes in on older drivers
nwaonline.com -- Jan 25
Automakers in Japan, where almost 30% of the population is 65 or older, are taking the lead on adapting cars so the nation's legions of elderly drivers can feel more confident -- and be safer -- behind the wheel.

A run of accidents involving older drivers has raised the pressure from regulators to standardize advanced features. Automatic brakes will be required for all new vehicles sold domestically from this year, for example, and companies from Toyota Motor Corp. to Nissan Motor Co. are employing smart technology to make cars more user-friendly for older people.

It's also becoming more of a priority as public railways in rural areas disappear, worsening an isolation crisis made starker by the coronavirus pandemic. Without any means of getting around, elderly people in Japan are increasingly confined to their homes, their lives shrinking as transport options evaporate.

A recent high-profile fatal accident spotlighted the issue. In February last year, Japanese prosecutors indicted 89-year-old Kozo Iizuka on a charge of negligence resulting in death and injury after a crash in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district. The former senior bureaucrat was on his way to a restaurant with his wife in April 2019 when his Toyota Prius plowed through a crossing, killing a toddler and her mother and injuring several others.

The accident made headlines, not least because of Iizuka's high-ranking government position. Public sentiment swiftly turned against Iizuka, who was back in court last week after pleading not guilty in October.

The incident also sparked a national debate about the swelling ranks of elderly drivers on Japan's roads. After the event, the number of old people opting to park their wheels for good soared. According to the National Police Agency, 350,428 people 75 or older returned their driver's licenses in 2019, the highest number on record.

"Young people tell us seniors to return our driver's licenses, but they aren't around," says Hideaki Fukushima, 90, whose wife returned her own license around the time of the accident. The couple's children live in Nagoya, a two-hour drive away. In Takamori where they live, a small town in Japan's central mountainous area, trains operated by Central Japan Railway Co. come only about once an hour. "There's nothing you can do without a car," Fukushima says.

Last year, Toyota upgraded its Safety Sense offering. The technology is designed to prevent or mitigate frontal collisions as well as keep drivers within their lane. By using high-resolution cameras on the windscreen and bumper-mounted radars, it can detect oncoming cars or pedestrians -- or even bicycles in daylight hours -- and give audible and visual alerts. If drivers fail to respond, automatic braking may be deployed. The new software also has intersection functionality to help detect oncoming obstacles if a car is making a turn from a stationary position.

Other Toyota safety features include the correction of unintentional lane departures, automatic toggling between high and low beams at night depending on surrounding traffic, and the detection of slower-moving cars ahead on a highway and automatic maintenance of a pre-set distance. Road-sign assistance technology detects stop and speed signs as they're passed and displays a dashboard alert in case drivers have missed them.

- nwaonline.com

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