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Local gov’ts try to get the elderly off the roads

Jan 11,2019
Workers from the Sinjeong-dong and Mok-dong Community Center in Yangcheon District, western Seoul, received about 100 phone calls on Jan. 2. All the calls were from elderly drivers asking how to turn in their drivers’ licenses and what benefits they could receive if they did.

This license exchange policy is a new policy that Yangcheon District initiated aimed at reducing the number of car accidents caused by elderly drivers. The policy gives elderly drivers incentives if they voluntarily turn in their driver’s license. The Yangcheon District Office, however, said that only 11 people signed up on Jan. 2, the first day that the policy was introduced, out of the 25,000 elderly drivers who were eligible to apply.

The district offices will give a 100,000 won ($89.40) bus transportation card to 120 randomly-selected applicants. Of the 120 people selected, the district office said they will prioritize elderly drivers who drove on a regular basis in order to make sure that the benefits go to elderly citizens who are actually giving up driving.

Yangcheon District Office is not the only local government asking older drivers to give up their licenses. As of July last year, the Busan city government has followed a similar strategy to strong success, while regions like Changwon, South Gyeongsang, Jindo Island and South Jeolla, are also looking into plans of their own.

Though they might be different in detail, all these plans are aimed at getting older people, who may have trouble driving, to turn in their licenses.

According to the Korea Road Traffic Agency, a total of 20,275 car accidents occurred in 2014. That number, however, rose by 10 percent (26,713) in 2017. In the same period, the number of deadly car accidents decreased from 4,762 to 4,185. However, the lethal car accidents that involved an elderly driver rose from 763 to 848.

“In other words, one out of five car accidents are caused by elderly drivers,” said Oh Ju-seok, a researcher from the Korea Road Traffic Agency. “In order to protect the safety and lives [of other drivers], we need to restrict the number of elderly drivers as well as create a social atmosphere that steers them away from the steering wheel.”

Two national administrative resolutions were adopted to help solve this problem. The first is introducing a stricter driving education program for elderly drivers who wish to renew their license.

Starting from Jan. 1, drivers that are aged 75 years and older have to undergo mandatory traffic education in order to renew their license. The second resolution also mandates shorter intervals between renewing one’s license. Currently, older drivers are required to renew their license every five years. However, this period of time will be reduced to three years for the elderly. Already, countries like Japan require that drivers renew their license every three years.

The incentive plans that were implemented by the Busan city government and the Yangcheon District Office are also aimed at decreasing the number of elderly drivers. The Busan city government, which implemented the plan first, commented on how it “was a success” and that they were planning to increase the budget allocated to implementing it.

Last year the Busan city government offered a 100,000 won cash card that could be used in some public bathing houses, restaurants and optical stores to elderly drivers who turned in their license. Over 4,800 people turned in their licenses.

According to the Busan city government, during January to November of last year, a total of 16 fatal car accidents were caused by elderly drivers. After the plan was implemented, the city saw a 40.7 percent decrease in comparison to the average number of fatal car accidents that occurred from 2013 to 2017, or 27.

“The overall percentage of car accidents caused by elderly drivers also decreased from 21.6 percent [the average percentage from 2013 to 2017] to 13.1 percent [after the plan was implemented],” said Lee Ji-yeon, an officer who specializes in transportation policies at the Busan city government. “This is why [the city government] has decided to increase the budget allocated to this plan from 40 million won to 400 million won.”

However, experts have pointed out how the incentive plan was only effective in cities that have an advanced public transportation system, like Seoul and Busan.

A 79-year-old driver who lives in Chuncheon, Gangwon, surnamed Lee has worked as a driver since he was 20 years old. “I was always quite proud of my driving skills,” said Lee. “But nowadays, since my eyesight has worsened and my hands and feet don’t respond as quickly as they should, there has been more than one occasion where I thought I could have caused an accident.”

Lee has pointed out that there was no way that he could just stop driving because he was a farmer and had to travel to the market to buy farming material at least once a week. “I want to quit driving, but if I do, there’s no way I could take myself to places [that I need to go].”

“The right to move from one place to another is directly related to one’s quality of life,” said Oh. “In order for [the incentive plan] to be effective, it needs to include a measure that will guarantee drivers their right to move around.”

Some of the measures recommended by Oh were providing the elderly with a travel voucher for transportation from their house to the nearest public transportation stop, a discount in public transportation fees and a service that will deliver their groceries to their homes for free. Along with the issues of elderly driving, some are proposing additional safety measures targeted at elderly taxi drivers.

In 2014, an 82-year-old taxi driver rammed into the lobby of the Shilla Hotel after confusing the accelerator pedal with the brake. According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, of the 268,000 registered taxi drivers, 78,000 are over 65 years old.

Car accidents caused by these taxi drivers reached 2,116 cases in 2011 and doubled to 4,322 cases in 2016. In light of this increase, the government has announced that, starting from next month, all taxi drivers who are 65 years and older will have to undergo a driving test. If they fail the test, they will no longer be able to continue to work as a taxi driver. However, because of opposition from drivers, they can provide medical examination results that prove their abilities in lieu of the government inspection.

BY LEE SANG-JAI [jeong.juwon@joongang.co.kr]