Two Toddlers Killed, Thirteen Others Injured in Japan After Car Crashes into Nursery Group
On Wednesday, May 8, 2019, a car plowed into a group of nursery children in the city of Otsu, located on the shore of Lake Biwa in western Japan’s Shiga Prefecture, killing two toddlers and injuring 13 others — a figure that includes the entire group of nursery children on the walk and the three accompanying nursery school teachers.
It is common practice for Japanese nursery schools to take the children out to local parks and grounds for playtime, recess, and excursions during the school day. The children, supervised by their teachers, were on the sidewalk near a crossing for a busy intersection when, at around 10:15 a.m., a small car collided into another larger vehicle, veered off the road, and crashed into the nursery group on the sidewalk.
Eyewitnesses reported that the car pinned several bleeding children to an adjacent fence, with the road and sidewalk littered with water bottles and shoes of the nursery children before first responders were able to reach the scene.
Ostu City government confirmed the accident but declined to offer further details. An anonymous police spokesperson stated that “the accident occurred on a road in Ogaya in Otsu city. A car hit a line of about 15 nursery school children out walking. Several people were injured.”
A girl and a boy — Yui Harada and Gaku Ito — both two years old, were pronounced dead after they were rushed to the hospital. Several other children suffered serious injuries and remain in critical condition, although local media report that some have regained consciousness after the horrendous incident.
The uninjured drivers of both cars, a 52-year-old Fumiko Shintate and 62-year-old Michiko Shimoyama, were arrested at the scene and brought into custody, upon which both admitted to causing the accident.
Shintate was quoted as saying she “wasn’t paying enough attention to the front” while Shimoyama stated that she had “cut to the left to avoid [Shintate’s] car” but conceded that she apparently reacted too late. Shimoyama was ultimately released later in the day as the police deemed she “did not have a high degree of responsibility” for the incident while police continued their investigation into Shintate on suspicion of “negligent driving resulting in death and injury.”
Footage, acquired after the incident, from the dashboard camera of the car that slammed into the nursery group — driven by Shimoyama — showed Shintate’s vehicle, approaching from the opposite (oncoming) direction, was attempting to make a right turn when it collided with Shimoyama’s vehicle, sending Shimoyama’s vehicle riding up the pavement to ultimately hit the group of children.
While Japan continues to see an overall low number of fatal traffic accidents, the number of fatal traffic accidents caused by elderly drivers — and the resulting proportion of accidents caused by elderly drivers — has risen in the past decade. The National Police Agency reported in February 2019 that drivers aged 75 and older caused a record 14.8 percent of all 3,099 fatal collisions across Japan in 2018, raising the figure of fatal accidents per 100,000 drivers for the elderly from 7.7 to 8.2 — in contrast to the figure for drivers under the age of 75, which fell to 3.4 accidents per 100,000 drivers.
Most accidents have resulted from elderly drivers losing their grip on the steering wheel or confusing the accelerator and the brake, with vehicles hitting utility poles and other objects, collisions in intersections, and head-on collisions being the three main categories cases have fallen under. Additionally, concerning studies on drivers affected by dementia or signs thereof — in 2018, up to 60,000 drivers aged 75 and above were assessed to be possibly suffering from dementia — have driven efforts by activists, police, and lawmakers to tighten requirements for renewing licenses and curb dangerous driving.
The number of high-profile incidents in the past month alone have heightened public concern. In the busy Ikebukuro district of Tokyo on April 19, a car driven by 87-year-old man Kozo Iizuka plowed through a guard rail and three pedestrian crossings, wounding several and killing 31-year-old Mana Matsunaga and her 3-year-old daughter Riko when Iizuka’s car struck their bicycle before finally coming to a halt. Police, citing the lack of brake marks at the scene and no technical fault with Iizuka’s vehicle, suspect Iizuka mistakenly pressed the accelerator instead of the brake — contrary to Iizuka’s claim that his accelerator pedal was stuck.
Additionally, in Kobe City on April 21, just two days later, a city-run bus driven by 64-year-old man Fumio Ono ran a red light into a crosswalk full of pedestrians near JR Sannomiya Station, which killed two and injured six. While Ono maintained that the bus had accelerated despite his application of the brakes, police suspect Ono had lost control of the bus for some reason and are continuing their investigation into the matter.
With regards to the tragedy in Otsu, in an emotional press conference held in the evening of May 8, the principal of the nursery school briefly recalled the memories of the two fatalities before breaking down in tears, unable to say another word.
The parent company that operates the nursery released a statement on Facebook, expressing that “we are deeply shocked and pained by this heartbreaking accident. We feel terribly sorry when we think about the children’s future.”
Local residents have expressed their surprise and grief at the accident as well. Hideo Osuki, an 82-year-old resident of the area, remarked, “I have often seen those children take walks around here. Actually, I lost my children to a traffic accident a long time ago. I can’t just think of this as someone else’s tragedy.”