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Senior mobility: a national challenge for Japan

19.12.2019
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At more than a quarter of the population, over 65s in Japan have become a key national mobility concern. In response, public authorities are coming up with innovative solutions.

Kane Tanaka is a national treasure. At 116, this Japanese woman is the oldest person alive. And she’s far from the exception: a record number of more than 70,000 centenarians live in Japan, a phenomenon that shows no sign of abating. Demographers estimate that senior citizens will account for 40% of people in Japan in 2060. This aging population, chiefly due to a decrease in birth rates on the archipelago, is a huge mobility challenge in terms of making sure that seniors can get around safely. They need to be able to go to the doctor, do their grocery shopping and even get to the office, since one in three retired people in Japan still work.

Stickers for senior drivers

In 2016, in response to the increasing number of road accidents caused by elderly drivers (more than 53% of the total), the Japanese government set to work to address the issue of senior mobility. Prime minister Shinzō Abe founded a dedicated working group, which recommended a set of measures. The first was to put a sticker in the shape of a four-leaf clover on the backs of vehicles, like learner plates for student drivers. Named the Senior Citizen Mark, it shows other motorists that the driver is elderly so that they take extra care. The sticker is optional for drivers over 70, but compulsory for the over 75s, who risk being fined if they do not comply. Cognitive testing is also commonplace for drivers over 75, and has to be renewed every three years.

Reduced rates and pilot policies

Every attempt is made to encourage elderly people to avoid driving. In Tokyo, senior drivers who agree to give up their license are issued a graduation certificate giving them access to preferential taxi rates, special public transportation subscriptions and even reduced prices in stores.

But Japan also looks to technological innovation to help change behaviors. In Kanagawa prefecture, in the suburbs of Tokyo, a company named Robot Taxi provides autonomous taxis to help senior citizens get around. These driverless taxis take passengers from their homes to a nearby supermarket and back again, with the goal of promoting safe mobility for elderly people. The system is currently being tested by around 50 people, but may become more widespread across all of Japan next year.

However, it’s in rural areas that Japanese seniors struggle the most with getting around. To combat social exclusion and a lack of mobility, elderly people in Nishikata, 115 kilometers from Tokyo, can now take the Robot Shuttle Dena, a self-driving, six‑person vehicle, to the nearest medical center. Other stops, such as the bank and shopping mall, are set to be added to the driverless bus’ route soon, to help elderly people regain their independence and mobility. And the government is looking into developing this mode of transportation in other rural regions.

Plans for a special driving license for seniors

At the national level, authorities are focusing their initiatives on electric cars. The Japanese minister for industry recently announced the rollout of an €800 grant for all purchases of a one- or two-seater electric vehicle. Drivers of these cars would be allowed to take only a limited selection of roads. In addition, the country’s police force may soon set up a special driving license for seniors, under which they would only be authorized to drive vehicles fitted with urgent braking technology. These measures could also inspire other Western countries with aging populations. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly two billion people worldwide will be aged over 60 in 2050.

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