/ |

Struggling to put the brakes on the culture of drunk driving

by Philip Brasor

What makes a crime more heinous than another? We usually think it has to do with intention. Murder, which implies pre-meditation, is more seriously punished than manslaughter, which implies lack of premeditation.

However, we tend to respond less to intentions than we do to actual circumstances. On Aug. 26, a 22-year-old man driving over a bridge in Fukuoka rear-ended an SUV containing a family of five. The collision pushed the SUV through a railing, and the vehicle plunged into Hakata Bay. The two parents survived with minor injuries, but their three children, aged 4, 3 and 1, died.

The police determined that the man who caused the accident was drunk at the time, thus inflating an accident into a heinous crime. Had there not been children in the car, the incident would not have received as much attention, but because three innocent lives were lost and the parents’ heroic attempts to save them were in vain, the coverage was extremely dramatic. The media are now on a crusade against driving under the influence (DUI). Every day since the Fukuoka accident, the press has reported at least one — but usually two or three — drunk driving accidents, whereas previously they reported very few.

Prosecutors for the Fukuoka case say that they will ask for the maximum sentence allowed under these particular circumstances, which is 20 years in prison. This is seen as not only a punishment, but also a warning to others who might drink and drive.

Since no one believes the young man got drunk with the intention of going out and crashing his car into another, and given that convicted murderers often get lighter sentences, 20 years sounds overly severe. He is clearly at fault, but he and the family he hit were extremely unlucky in that they happened to be on a bridge where the railings were not designed to withstand the impact of a vehicle (the SUV was relatively undamaged). Their purpose was simply to prevent pedestrians from falling into the bay.

Shukan Post ran an article that attempted to show how common drunk driving is among civil servants, since the Fukuoka man worked for the local government. The implication is that, unlike employees of private companies, public workers believe they won’t get fired if they are caught by the police, so they are more likely to drive drunk. There’s also the idea that public workers should be held to a higher standard.

Shukan Shincho’s angle was a little more substantial. An article in the Sept. 7 issue looked at the liability of businesses that sell alcohol to people who are driving as well as that of passengers in cars being driven by drunk people.

In 2002, the Traffic Law was beefed up with regard to DUI as the result of a similar drunk-driving accident in which two children died. In addition to lowering the allowable blood-alcohol rate from 0.25 (2.5 grams of alcohol per 1,000 grams of blood) to 0.15, the new law said that anyone who doesn’t prevent a person he knows is drunk from driving can be prosecuted as an accessory if the driver causes an accident.

In the past two weeks, police departments have said they will crack down on these kinds of enablers, but Shincho says it’s hard to enforce. A friend who may have been drinking with a drunk driver can simply say he didn’t see him get into the car. Moreover, it’s difficult to prove in a court of law that a bartender knew an individual was going to drive. The burden of proof is on the police, not the person who sold the liquor.

An article in the Asahi Shimbun, mainly about a man who said that he thought nothing of driving drunk for the past 30 years until he crashed his car and was led away in handcuffs in front of his family, got closer to the gist of the problem. In 2005, according to the article, there were approximately 140,000 DUI arrests in Japan. This was a 60 percent decrease from 1999, thus proving the effectiveness of the new law in terms of a deterrent, but it also indicates that DUI is an everyday fact of life, since we can assume that most drunk drivers don’t get caught.

That brings us to the culture of drinking. It’s no accident that the majority of the cases that were recently reported occurred outside of cities, where public transportation is scarce and drinking may be the only recreation. Bars and snacks in suburban and rural areas often have parking lots. The snack owner who served the Fukuoka man told reporters that it was none of his business whether or not the man had come by car. Quoted in Shincho, he said indignantly, “It’s our job to sell alcohol. It would be outrageous for us to ask such a question.”

A mind-set is a difficult thing to alter, and until a driver actually has an accident or is arrested, he tends to think he can handle driving after a few drinks. In fact, there appears to be many well-known methods for beating the law. The Asahi article mentioned that some drivers have developed a method of inhaling during the Breathalyzer tests to fool the police, while a different Asahi article said that the reason drunk drivers usually leave the scene of an accident even when there are witnesses is that the penalty for hit-and-run is much less than that for DUI. Even if they catch you tomorrow, they can’t prove you were drunk yesterday.

So while stronger legal measures are welcome, they still have their limits in terms of prevention. Clearly, the best solution is making it physically impossible either for drivers to drink or for drunks to drive. In that regard, the most positive effect of the increased media attention has been on the automotive industry. A report aired by NHK last Wednesday stated that several of the nation’s carmakers have said they will step up research into making their vehicles drunk-proof. Now, if the alcoholic beverage industry would offer some suggestions, we’d really be getting somewhere.