A planned amendment to the law on road traffic would enable the police to revoke a driver’s license over acts of road rage, which would be defined as dangerous driving with the intention of obstructing another driver’s safe passage, through such acts as tailgating, repeatedly swerving between lanes or cutting in front of the other vehicle. While the dangers of such acts have been highlighted by some high-profile cases over the past few years, there has so far been no legal provision to penalize the act of road rage itself.
Creating a new offense and penalties against road rage alone will not immediately stop such dangerous acts. In a recent National Police Agency survey, 1 out of 3 drivers said they have been the target of dangerous driving, such as tailgating, over the past year. The amendment should promote broader efforts to raise awareness of the dangers of reckless driving — that road rage puts the lives of others on the road at risk, and that drivers will be severely punished for such acts — and deter hazardous driving on public roads.
Public concern over road rage was fueled by an incident in June 2017 on the Tomei Expressway, in which a motorist forced a van to stop in a passing lane, and a large truck hit the van, killing the husband and wife in the van and injuring their two daughters. In July last year, a university student riding his motorcycle was persistently tailgated by a man in a car on a road in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, until he was struck by the car and killed.
Last year, the NPA called on police forces nationwide to crack down on the acts of road rage by applying all possible legal means. But in the absence of legal punishment against the act of road rage, there are limits to imposing heavy penalties on acts such as tailgating — even though they can potentially lead to fatal accidents — and calls have been growing for legally defining and penalizing road rage.
Along with the planned amendment to the road traffic law, the Justice Ministry is contemplating revising a separate law so that the act of cutting off another vehicle to force it to stop would be included among the acts that constitute “dangerous driving,” which carry a heavier criminal punishment than accidental traffic collisions that result in the death or injury of others.
Last December, the Yokohama District Court sentenced the driver in the Tomei Expressway case to 18 years in prison, ruling that while the act of forcing the victims’ van to stop in and of itself did not constitute an act of dangerous driving, the victims’ deaths were caused by the action taken by the defendant to obstruct their van, and that therefore their deaths were the outcome of his road rage even though he was not behind the wheel at the time of the crash.
In January, the Osaka District Court gave the driver in the Sakai case a 16-year prison term for the murder of the motorcyclist, ruling that he smashed his car into the motorcycle knowing that he could kill him.
Earlier this month, the Tokyo High Court overturned the Yokohama court ruling on the Tomei case and sent it back to the district court, citing an illegality in its proceedings. Still, the high court endorsed the district court’s decision that the accused’s act constituted dangerous driving resulting in death and injury — that the victims’ deaths were caused by his act of obstructing their van.
However, questions have been raised among some legal experts as to whether the district court overstretched in its interpretation of relevant laws. In that sense, it will be significant to clearly define what constitutes an act of road rage and the punishment.
In addition to revoking driver’s licenses, the planned amendment would reportedly provide for a prison term of up to two or three years for acts of road rage and set aside a period of at least a year before a driver can get a new license.
To focus on malicious drivers, the amended law would target those who persistently repeat dangerous acts against other motorists with the intent to obstruct their passage. To prove that the offending driver intentionally and persistently engaged in dangerous acts, objective evidence such as images recorded with dashboard cameras or with security cameras along roads, or the testimony of passengers, will likely be key. Sales of dashboard cameras are reportedly seeing a sharp increase with the rise in public concern over road rage incidents. The knowledge that an increasing number of cars are being equipped with drive recorders will also serve to deter acts of road rage.