South Korea to use virtual reality to give older drivers aptitude tests after spate of accidents

South Korea is set to introduce a virtual reality aptitude test for older drivers to counter a steady increase in deadly road accidents caused by pensioners behind the wheel.

The £2 million system will be rolled out from March and be compulsory for the over-65s, requiring them to test their reactions to a variety of road conditions using a virtual reality headset.

Their responses will be evaluated by traffic experts and medical professionals who have the power to impose conditions on driving licences, including curbs on nighttime and long-distance travel, and a possible motorway ban.

The move follows a spike in fatalities and high-profile accidents in the East Asian country, which is expected to hit “super-aged” status by 2025 – when 20 percent of the population are 65 or older.

Serious crashed caused by over-65s jump 25 per cent

Government data shows serious car crashes caused by the over-65s have been rising for several years, jumping from around 86,000 in 2016 to some 115,000 in 2020, according to the Yonhap news agency.

The controversial proposed curbs have divided opinion, with critics arguing that the age limit for the VR tests is too low but supporters backing the plans in the name of public safety.

Kim Su Nam, a 72-year-old driver in the capital, Seoul, said he was sceptical that a computer programme could adequately assess decades of driving experience, and denounced driving restrictions for stripping the elderly of their dignity.

“I believe this to be a form of discrimination. Were all the fatal accidents caused by old people driving? Young people have caused loads of accidents with rental cars and drink driving,” he said.

He said he feared the new rules would limit his independence.

“This means that old people should just stay at home. I can’t even go to a supermarket freely with my own car when I want to go get groceries. If one of my family members needs to go to the hospital in the middle of the night, we will just have to pay for the expensive ambulance fee.”

Elderly given extra public transport allowance to discourage driving

Major cities such as Seoul, Daegu and Incheon are seeking to counter concerns by offering the over-65s public transport allowances of about £61 if they voluntarily surrender their licences.

But few have been attracted by the incentive, with only about 2 percent of elderly drivers taking up the offer in 2020.

“It’s not right to tell us to give up our right of mobility for some petty cash. The money they give monthly when we turn in our licences is not enough, and it only means that we can go somewhere where the public transport takes us. This is taking away our right of free mobility,” said Mr Kim.

According to data by Samsung Traffic Safety Research Institute, in 2018, older drivers caused almost twice as many deadly accidents as those aged under 64.

Former taxi driver Seo Byeong Jin, 85, said he approved of the VR test but rejected the stigma against older people.

“I turned my licence in because I didn’t want to harm other people in case of an accident, but I do not agree with the idea of old drivers being treated as a threat,” he said.

He urged the government to increase the financial incentives to encourage the elderly to give up the freedom afforded by their driving licence, and to cover the cost of public transport more adequately.

“I used to be a taxi driver, so driving meant everything to me. It also meant that I could go anywhere that I liked,” he said. “It’s sad to get old and not be like how I was when I was young.”

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