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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Japan's Graying Road Hazard

Mar. 28, 2017

Efforts are underway in Japan to keep the country's seniors from causing road accidents as the country's population ages.

Elderly drivers are becoming a growing concern in Japan. Last year alone, seniors 75 and over caused more than 30,000 traffic accidents that resulted in injury or death.

That number is expected to increase as the country's population ages. The number of senior drivers has tripled over the past 15 years to more than 5 million. As a result, efforts are underway to keep older citizens mobile and the roads safe for everyone.

Twice a month, Kesao and Takiko Matsuoka make the long drive to the city from their village in southwestern Japan. Their remote home makes a car essential for the elderly couple, for daily shopping and for visits to the doctor.

Matsuoka had to drive 140 kilometers, a 5-hour road trip, for a doctor appointment.

"It takes a whole day just to go the doctor. I'm 80 years old now. I wonder if I can keep driving for another 5 years," he says.

Traffic accidents caused by the elderly have been rampant across Japan. Last year, seniors aged 75 and older were behind almost 33,000 accidents involving injury or death.

Japan has no maximum age limit for holding a license. But officials have recently raised the bar for seniors, requiring more difficult tests for renewal, hoping it will reduce the number of accidents caused by elderly drivers. Authorities are also asking them to voluntarily give up driving, but many seniors are not aware of their declining abilities.

Norito Hiraoka, 73, used to be a long-distance truck driver. He's confident that he's still okay behind the wheel. He recently took a virtual test-drive while a police officer watched him.

It wasn't long before he had a violation, crossing over the center line. The simulation revealed his deteriorating driving skills. He was going too slowly and he was late using the brakes.

Afterward, Hiraoka decided to give up driving. He voluntarily returns his license, and receives a "record of driving" certificate. He can use it as ID, but he can't use it to drive.

In remote regions of Japan, having access to a car can be necessary for daily life. One such area is the village of Shiiba, in the southwestern prefecture of Miyazaki, where over 40 percent of the residents are 65 or older. The mountainous terrain means vehicles are needed even for short trips.

Last year, local officials began testing a new transportation system to help elderly residents get around. The free-car service is targeted at people over 65 who don't have a license. One phone call and a driver will come pick them up.

"All of my children have gotten married and left home. I live alone now. But if I just make a phone call, a car comes to pick me up. It's nice and easy," says one woman who uses the service.

The service is mostly funded by the national government, with the village paying a quarter of the cost. Local officials want to expand the program, but right now they simply can't afford it.

"We'd like to increase the service's coverage, but we would need a large amount of financial assistance. Without more money from the central government, we can't do it," says Kazuhiro Shiiba, an official in Shiiba.

The number of elderly drivers in Japan is growing by 200,000 people a year. With many issues still on the horizon, efforts to reduce accidents could face a rough road ahead.

Authorities are stepping up efforts to deal with the problem. This month, the government revised laws to strengthen screening for dementia among drivers age 75 and over. Officials also report that more than 124,000 seniors voluntarily gave up their licenses in 2015, a record high.