By Kim Deok-hyun
SEOUL, Jan. 4 (Yonhap) -- Last month, a speeding car driven by an 80-something person rammed into another car and plowed into a grandmother and her granddaughter walking nearby in the southern port city of Busan, resulting in the death of the two pedestrians.
Months earlier, multiple people were injured after a five-vehicle crash caused by a 73-year-old driver in the southeastern city of Changwon.
Both drivers claimed their cars began suddenly accelerating without their control, but the accidents renewed safety concerns over elderly people behind the wheel.
For years, fatal accidents involving elderly drivers have been on the rise in South Korea, which is widely expected to become a super-aged society in 2025. A super-aged society means the proportion of those aged 65 and older will hit 20 percent of the total population.
According to government data, traffic accidents caused by drivers aged 65 and older jumped to 114,795 in 2020, compared with 86,304 in 2016.
Licensed drivers aged 65 and older caused 92.74 accidents per every 100,000 on the road in 2018, compared with 49.77 per every 100,000 for 30-something drivers, according to data by Samsung Traffic Safety Research Institute.
Deadly accidents caused by older drivers killed 2.9 per 100 cases, compared with 1.7 deaths per 100 cases by drivers aged 64 and younger, the data showed.
"Although the population of over-65 people increased, the pace of growth in car accidents involving them was significantly higher than their population growth," Cho Joon-hwan, a senior researcher at the Samsung institute, said in a report.
"To cope with a super-aged society, customized measures are necessary to deal with elderly drivers in high-risk groups," Cho said.
According to the Samsung institute, the number of licensed drivers aged 65 and older is expected to surge to 9.88 million in 2030, compared with 3.33 million in 2019.
To combat rising traffic accidents involving seniors, the Korean National Police Agency has been pushing to issue conditional licenses for elderly people, potentially from 2025.
A conditional license allows people to drive within certain limitations. For instance, nighttime or highway driving could be limited, depending on a driver's health conditions. Currently, conditional licenses are issued to some people with disabilities in South Korea.
Starting in March, police will begin research to assess an elderly driver's driving aptitude using virtual reality. A total of 3.6 billion won (US$3.1 million) was set aside over the next three years for the development of virtual reality-based tests.
"Recently, the license renewal period for elderly drivers was shortened, and there is a need for authorities to introduce conditional licenses," said Kim Pil-soo, a professor of automotive engineering at Daelim University.
Under a law, people aged 65 or older are defined as elderly drivers. For people aged 75 and older, the government shortened their license renewal period to every three years from every five.
For drivers aged 65 and older, the government asked them to voluntarily give up their licenses.
However, only about 2 percent of elderly drivers, or some 76,000, surrendered their licenses in 2020.
To encourage elderly people to stop driving, municipal governments, including Seoul, Daegu and Incheon, have implemented an incentive program that provides 100,000 won (around US$83) a month in transportation allowance to senior drivers who voluntarily return their licenses.
Police have also provided a part of its budget to local governments to share their payment of transportation allowances for elderly drivers returning their licenses.
Despite such incentives, persuading elderly drivers to give up their licenses is difficult, as it could affect their livelihoods or raise emotional concerns for some seniors.
"I think I will feel so sad if I give up my driver's license," said Kim Hyung-il, a 76-year-old resident in Seoul. "Because it will be my last time driving in my life."
Besides policy measures, innovative technologies in driving are expected to curb car accidents involving elderly people.
As the nation is set to usher in a super-aged society, the auto industry picked up speed in adopting safety and healthcare technologies to cars.
These days, most new cars are equipped with a new safety technology known as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems.
The new technology makes a vehicle stop when it detects obstacles not seen by drivers. It also enables cars to get a clear front view so drivers can stay within their lanes and not go over the speed limit.
Using artificial intelligence and deep learning technologies, a vehicle can recognize and respond to surrounding environments in real time. For instance, a vehicle's safety system can send an alert or buzz the driver to wake up if the system recognizes a drowsy driving.
Hyundai Mobis, an affiliate of Hyundai Motor, has developed a warning system that can recognize a driver's face and even track their eyes.
The system, which analyzes the driver's facial biometric data and warns about careless driving, will be applied in most commercial Hyundai cars.