[Newsmaker] Seniors behind wheel prompt safety concerns

By Kim Bo-gyung

Experts suggest conditional license amid aging population

  • Published : Jun 3, 2019 - 16:39
  • Updated : Jun 4, 2019 - 12:14

In light of a recent series of fatal car accidents involving elderly drivers, calls are growing to revamp policies and issue conditional licenses for seniors.

Last month, two died and 11 were injured after a 75-year-old man drove into a crowd celebrating Buddha’s Birthday at the temple Tongdosa in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang Province.

According to police, the driver, surnamed Kim, testified he had accidently stepped on the accelerator pedal, sparking concerns about elderly drivers on the road.

Spotlighting the government’s push to get seniors to withdraw their driver’s licenses, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon vowed to turn in his own license.

“I promise a timely return of my license,” Lee said in an event held as part of efforts to reduce car accidents last week at Coex in southern Seoul.

On the grounds that traffic accident death tolls have declined in recent years, Lee added, “At this rate we will be able to accomplish the goal of reducing traffic-related deaths by half by 2022.”

Lee, 67, is a senior driver under the Road Traffic Act, which classifies drivers above the age of 65 as seniors.

As the aging population rapidly increases, the proportion of older drivers has risen to 9.5 percent of adults with a driver’s license, up 2.5 percentage points from 2014, according to the Road Traffic Authority.

The number of traffic accidents caused by senior drivers is also on the rise.

A total 30,012 traffic accidents were caused by elderly drivers in 2018, accounting for 13.8 percent of all cases, compared to 20,275 cases in 2014, data from the Road Traffic Authority showed.

“Asking seniors to turn in their driver’s license based on their age is not the most preferred method. Whom to classify as a senior driver is also very vague,” Lee Ho-geun, a professor of automotive engineering at Daeduk University, told The Korea Herald.

Police and fire authorities examine a crash site that left two dead and 11 injured after a 75-year-old driver accidentally stepped on the accelerator pedal and drove into a crowd celebrating Buddha’s Birthday at the temple Tongdosa in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang Province, on May 12. (Yonhap)

Lee suggested a driver’s license screening system that incorporates medical records to determine whether the elderly are capable of driving.

“South Korea has a top notch health insurance system. By looking into seniors’ medical records, it can easily be confirmed if they have been prescribed drugs that induce drowsiness or if they have been diagnosed with illnesses that require long-term treatment. But it is illegal to transfer medical records to other agencies under the current Personal Information Protection Act,” Lee said.

Despite dangers posed by seniors who fail to meet criteria for safe driving, there are no regulations on driver’s licenses unless the driver tests positive for dementia.

Though the effectiveness remains questionable, the license renewal period for those 75 years and older was shortened to three years from the previous five-year period in January, when the revised Road Traffic Act went into effect.

The National Police Agency has also said it will review curbing late-night driving and a speed limit for older drivers depending on their health and driving capability.

In New Zealand and Denmark, drivers aged 75 or older are required to undergo testing by police and doctors in person to renew their licenses. Germany, Switzerland and California each place conditions on a senior’s license after administering tests.

“I am in support of conditional driver’s license issuance. Due to longer life expectancy most people have to work after retirement, which is the case for myself. I try not to drive after sunset because of weakened eyesight,” said Lee Young-chul, a 67 year-old self-employed worker in the tourism industry.

As part of efforts to encourage seniors to give up their driver’s licenses, the Seoul government offers a public transportation card with 100,000 won ($85) to drivers 70 or older who turn in their license.

Busan Metropolitan Government, which launched a similar campaign in July, also gives a public transportation card with 100,000 won, as well as a discount card that provides up to 40 percent off at participating hospitals, restaurants and opticians, among other places.

Due to such efforts and growing awareness of the problem, the number of seniors that have turned in their licenses tallied 7,346 in the first quarter this year, the Road Traffic Authority said. In all of 2018, 11,913 people handed in their licenses.

“South Korea’s driving regulation for seniors at the moment is relatively lax compared to other countries. We should revise the policy and move toward adopting an inclusive measure,” Kim Sang-ock, a chief researcher at Samsung Traffic Safety Research Institute, told The Korea Herald.

“Health and driving eligibility of each senior varies, so different license limits have to take effect for each driver. … Such an inclusive system should be practiced until level 5 self-driving technology becomes commercially available,” said Kim, referring to complete autonomous driving technology.

By Kim Bo-gyung (