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The House of Councilors on Wednesday approved amendments to the Road Traffic Law that include heavier penalties and an extension of the validity of driver’s licenses to five years from the current three.

Most provisions in the revised law, which has already cleared the House of Representatives, will go into effect within a year.

Under the revised law, drivers involved in hit-and-run accidents will face a maximum of five years in prison or up to 500,000 yen in fines, increased from the current maximum of threeyears or 200,000 yen.

Drunken driving currently carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison or 100,000 yen in fines. The revised law will raise the penalty to a maximum of three years or 500,000 yen.

The Justice Ministry and the National Police Agency are still deliberating policies on whether to impose heavier penalties against more serious traffic accidents, such as drunken driving resulting in death or injury.

Under the revised law, driver’s licenses will be valid for five years except for first-time license holders and those who have accrued more than four points in penalties in five years.

Applications for license renewals will be accepted up to two months before or after the license holder’s date of birth, as opposed to the current one-month period prior to the date of birth.

Drivers with a good record will also have the option of renewing their licenses at police stations outside their residential district.

The current outright ban on driving by the mentally retarded or the vision-impaired will be lifted and replaced by a system of physical and mental tests to determine driving ability.

The revised law also paves the way for driver’s licenses implanted with computer chips, perhaps as early as 2004.

On Wednesday, the Diet also enacted a new law to regulate the growing “substitute driving” business, which involves driving inebriated people’s cars for them.

According to National Police Agency figures, there were 2,715 “substitute driving” operators in Japan in May 2000, employing an estimated 40,000 people.

Under the new law, which will go into force within a year, operators of substitute driving businesses will be required to take out insurance policies and obtain a business license from local public safety commissions.

This marks the first piece of legislation directed at the industry, which has been largely unregulated since it first appeared in Japan in the 1970s.

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