Guest Post: Granny Get Your Gun

Photo courtesy of Japan Today

Over the last few months, there has been a rash of age-related car accidents in Japan.  Just yesterday, a 9 year old girl was killed and four other children injured when 70 year old driver rear ended another car and sent it spinning into a group of students walking home from school.  Last week, an 85 year old driver who had been warned by his family not to get behind the wheel, veered onto a sidewalk after striking another car and ran down two high school girls on bicycles before flipping his car onto its side.  In November, an elderly woman suddenly accelerated through a lowered parking lot gate and shot across the street where she killed two pedestrians.  A month before that, seven people, including a two year old boy, were injured when an elderly driver hit the wrong pedal while exiting a parking lot and barreled across crowded sidewalk near a major department store and, earlier in the year, a 76 year old killed one person and injured five more when she lost control of her car in a parking lot.

According to the Japanese police, drivers 65 and older were responsible for 965 fatal accidents in 2016.  That’s more than 25% of fatal car accidents nationwide and, because Japan is an aging society, there is a great deal of fear that the number will to grow in the coming years.  To help mitigate that growth, in early 2017 a cognitive assessment was added to the existing mandate that all drivers be retested at 70 years of age and, rather than face the possibility of being found unworthy, more than 106,000 people voluntarily surrendered their licenses in the months prior to the new rules going live.  While it’s certain that many older people were opposed to the new rules, there was little public outcry.

Of course, it will take time for the rules to take effect.  An entire generation of drivers were retested at 70 before the cognitive assessment was added to the regime and they continue to be out on the road.  But overall, the new rules are a genteel solution to a serious problem from a civilized society and it says a lot about the Japanese.  Of course, I do not believe for on minute that we could do anything like it in the United States without a good old knock-down drag-out fight.  We’re just not wired the same way.

The differences between the Japanese and Americans can and do fill countless volumes and one important point that I am sure most will agree upon is that Japan is a collectivist society while America runs more towards individualism.  Anthropologists posit a couple of reasons for this but it mainly boils down to the fact that the Japanese – and most other East Asians, in fact – are primarily descended from rice farmers.  Rice cultivation is hard work.  Seedlings are planted in flooded fields and the labor of an entire community may required to build and maintain the necessary irrigation systems to support the endeavor.  Because failure means starvation, the Japanese have learned through bitter experience that cooperation is necessary for survival and that echoes down through the centuries to today in the form of a national ethos in which most Japanese people willingly put the good of society ahead of their own individual interest.

Americans, meanwhile, prize a trait most often found in herding cultures, individualism.  Scratch the average American and you will find he bleeds the red blood of John Wayne and the American cowboy.  His role models are masculine and self-sufficient and he will suffer long and hard before he puts his fate in the hands of others.  This is necessary because cowboys and other herders spend weeks in the fields with their herds or flocks and they alone, or with only the smallest group of compatriots, are responsible for the safety of the animals in their charge.  Animals, by the way, are a constant pain in the ass.  They are forever getting lost, injured or stolen and it is only through decisive action that the herder keeps his property safe and his herd intact.  It is also, by the way, why herding cultures tend towards violence.  If a man is ferocious enough, his enemies will stay away and rustling will not be an issue. Asking others for help exposes his weakness and that, in turn, puts him in jeopardy.

Of course, this is all in the distant past and, once a person reaches an age where they find that their ability to see, hear, think and act are impaired, it makes sense that they should give up driving and learn to depend on others.  But the message that echoes down through the centuries from our own forefathers is that admitting weakness is a prelude to death.  We cannot willingly surrender our mobility, our strength and our independence, and while the vast majority of us dread the idea that we might accidentally hurt someone, our aversion to weakness stops us from doing what is, from a societal perspective at least, the responsible action.  And that’s why, when they finally come for my license, I’ll just have to tell them to go ahead and kill me right then.  Once it’s gone, I know in my heart that I’ll just be waiting for the reaper anyhow.

19 Replies to “Guest Post: Granny Get Your Gun”

  1. DrSmith

    Good article, Tom. I know after a serious accident that my father caused because he blacked out behind the wheel (he had a mini-stroke) that nearly killed my Mom, he walked away from driving. But he did miss it, because it meant a big change in his life. He produced a large family, so he always had someone to assist him, but ti him that was not the point – he had lost his mobility and his freedom.
    I wish that the automotive makers that make & market vehicles in the U. S. focus on this aspect of driver aides and semi autonomous and autonomous driving first – not to produce driver less pods for all of us, rather focus on the areas they would be needed first, such as for the eldery and the infirmed.

  2. John C.

    I am 48 and expect that before I am aged out of driving all licenses will be revoked to prevent trouble for autonomous cars. Driven cars will not interact well with autonomous cars and then the government in it’s wisdom will end driving and at the same time rid us of the old polluting cars that need drivers. I wonder which country will be first?

    Good article, Thomas.

    • Thomas Kreutzer Post author

      My guess is that the US will be a strong contender and I think the change will be driven by corporations – long haul trucking in particular. Eliminating professional drivers will reduce costs and allow the trucks more time on the road. Profits will rise and we all know that companies are all about that. Once they decide too many “normal” cars are tangling with their big rigs, they’ll seek to eliminate that cost as well and will lobby congress for restrictions on other drivers.

      The car manufacturers will jump right into that effort, too, and not on the side of the people. They’ll see the gravy train headed their way as they will finally be be able to force all those those vehicles they have sold over the past couple of decades – you know, the ones that can run 300K miles before they need to be replaced – off the market. Ultimately, they may lose share as people begin to look at a vehicle as more of a tool than as a fashion accessory, but the short term profits will be too much for them to resist. I could be wrong there, though, they could always pull an Apple and sell us annoying “upgrades” every few years.

      It sounds dark, but in the end I think Americans will love the change because it fits so well into our individualistic nature. People will get their own pods and the illusion of independence will be there whether or not they are actually at the controls. Way better than sharing a plodding bus with a hundred smelly strangers, right?

  3. safe as milk

    interesting theory about the difference in the cultures. my spouse who was born and raised in east asia is forever amazed about how hard it is to reach consensus on anything in america. she chalks it up to diversity. we can’t agree on things because we all view the world through very different lenses. she told me that when she first came here, she was stunned by the amount of direction there is in terms of signage, etc. on how to do things. in asia, they just assume you know what you are doing because everyone pretty much does things the same way. or as they say, “the nail that sticks out, gets hammered down.”

    • sabotenfighter

      “interesting theory about the difference in the cultures. my spouse who was born and raised in east asia is forever amazed about how hard it is to reach consensus on anything in america.”

      Really? Guess she never worked in an office or the government here. Hell, even normal drinking parties. If you give people options, they will hem and haw and suck their teeth (A LOT!) until someone of authority either comes in and says “we’re doing this!” or people give up and go home.
      If you ever go out drinking with a group of Japanese people, you better have a “set menu” picked out or explicitly tell everyone to order only what they want and be ready to pay for what they ordered, otherwise its absolute chaos. WIthin a group of friends, things go smoothly, but any time I am out with coworkers and we hit the 3rd bar or something, nobody is hungry, yet someone always orders a few dishes that end up just sitting on the table going cold and uneaten. The one time I suggested we do a la carte at a chain izakaya, the group couldnt decide on what to order, so I had to order everything but drinks for everyone otherwise they would have just sat there going hungry.
      Business runs much the same way. I work in the auto industry, for a big company, but making any decision, however minor, requires approval up a chain, turning the idea into a game of telephone, where by the end its barely resembles what it started as. Constant quibbles and hurt egos of pointless middle managers gets in the way of smooth, efficient business. Part of the reason our productivity is fucking terrible.

      • Thomas Kreutzer Post author

        My thoughts are that they hemming and hawing comes more from the fact that people don’t want to be in the outgroup and, rather than ordering what they want – which my be “different” than what the majority wants – and they chase their tails until a consensus emerges. It’s not at all efficient and most people aren’t really happy with the overall decision, but they end the table gets something that everyone can live with. They don’t have to like it, after all, they just need to be able to eat it and my guess is, if you asked them, everyone there (expect us angry Americans) would be totally fine with the way things worked out.

        From an American point of view, this is ridiculous. We just want someone to make a fucking choice and get the food on the table. People can choose to eat it or not and, even though we may end up ordering a wider variety of food, people are just about guaranteed to get what they really want.

        The work chain you are talking about is the same way, consensus hammering out a mediocre decision that isn’t always the best or most timely. It’s further complicated by the Confucian tendency to respect one’s elders and the Japanese habit of promoting the people who have been around the longest into management positions even if they have no leadership skills or special knowledge. Sort of makes you wonder why the Japanese have a reputation for being innovators…

        From our perspective, it really is a special kind of hell, isn’t it?

  4. yamahog

    I envy your optimism that we can understand this though a collectivist vs individualist lens. Perhaps we can, I certainly can’t falsify the claim.

    But as Samuel Johnson wrote, “There will always be a part, and always a very large part of every community, that have no care but for themselves, and whose care for themselves reaches little further than impatience of immediate pain, and eagerness for the nearest good.”

    Occupy Wall St. correctly pointed out that TARP = privatized gains and socialized losses. We make capitalism bad by insulating poor capital owners from negative consequences of poor stewardship and we get the worst part of socialism – the responsible have to clean up the mess left by the irresponsible.

    The attitude has become prevalent in America. Seniors shriek for collectivist values when it comes time to cut the social security check, “won’t you take care of the elderly” but ask them to show good faith to the collective and stop driving poorly and you get lectured about something that happened decades ago.

    These are people who are fundamentally unwilling to take their own side or make concessions for consistency. The only consistency one can expect out of a taker is self-interest.

    • Thomas Kreutzer Post author

      Samuel Johnson is right, but I think you will find that the raw number of those people vary from society to society. Japan, like the United States, has these people too, but they are not generally in the mainstream and the overall society tends to tamp down their selfish actions.

      In our own culture, seniors and companies shriek for collectivist values when it affects their own, enlightened self interest and they do it because they think they are “owed” not because they feel like they need help. The difference is in the perceived power of the relationship and no one is willingly going to take one for the team when they can force someone else to do it.

  5. hank chinaski

    WaPo had an interesting piece on Japan’s ‘lonely deaths’ and the cleanup involved.
    Japan’s approach to the demographic bomb is the opposite taken by the West.
    Respect for the elderly is all well and good, but a society that eats its young for the benefit of the dying is not long for this world.

  6. stingray65

    I would expect that automatic braking systems will prevent a lot of these types of accidents well before fully autonomous cars are widely available. Since the Japanese tend to trade cars pretty frequently (and scrap or export used cars pretty early), they should be early in getting automatic braking widely adopted – perhaps they should even mandate it for drivers over 65.

    • sabotenfighter

      Already there. Most every Toyota and a lot of Nissan and Honda are available with pre-crash/collision systems as well as unintended acceleration prevention systems that use the same sensors. The unintended start-off/acceleration system is designed for situations like mentioned above where an old person doesnt realize their car is in R or not in park and slams the accelerator instead of the brake. Stories about people blasting through convenience stores or into groups of school kids walking home definitely seem on the rise. Hopefully this will help reduce that.

  7. silentsod

    I would recommend Carnage and Culture as another take on major cultural differences between the West and the East.

  8. Aoletsgo

    This might be a little off point, but is related to some of what you wrote.
    It relates to a situation with a young family man that I know. He is a nice guy, with a good wife and two cute little kids. The problem is that as he admits his wife is a terrible driver. She speeds, tailgates, runs over curbs, and is distracted. So to protect HIS cubs the papa bear buys mama bear a massive four door pickup and the rest of you be damned.
    On the one hand it is hard to blame him on the other hand my winter beater is a Focus….

    • yamahog

      It’s easy to blame him – pick up trucks aren’t unusually safe for people inside the truck and they’re very dangerous for everyone else in the collision.

      A luxury sedan is safer for people inside the car and outside. If the man would man up, he’d put his wife in some E-class wagon, not an F-250.

  9. -Nate

    Good points all and right on target .

    One of my Sisters recently retired from a long career in the federal govt. where she, due to fear of only God knows what, stymied everything she was ever set to do .

    The predictable result of this behavior was her getting ‘down sized’ (fired) every 6 years or so when someone discovered just -who- in personnel (now human resources) was gumming up the works by constantly having meetings and then making sure nothing _ever_ got decided .

    Even going to dinner when we visit is impossible as she holds up the decision until 11PM when everyone else in the family says ‘ fuck this I’m tired’ and toddles off to bed .

    I learned 30 years ago to give her 30 minutes then I decide where I’m going or doing, whatever, if you care to join my group fine, otherwise go fuck yourself .

    A very nice elderly Japanese fellow who lived next door to a rich girl I dated, drove for about a decade after the Ca. DMV yanked his license, he had plenty of $ and so just paid cash for the damage each time he ran his beautiful 1979 Chevy into something . it would occasionally be gone for three weeks while it was repaired and repainted then he’d go back to driving his Wife to the Dr’s, hairdresser etc…..

    I used to worry he’d kill someone but he never did until the day he simply wasn’t able to get the car started, in his late 90’s age .


  10. Shortest Circuit

    126 million people and they only had ~3800 fatal accidents? That alone is remarkable…. the U.S. has about double population with 40.000 fatal crashes in 2016.


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