A year after his brother was reduced to a vegetative state by the actions of a drunk driver, Masahiro Kizawa was shocked to hear the words of a local prosecutor.
He was told that the police investigative report was compiled only on the basis of the driver’s testimony and thus greatly underplayed his criminal responsibility.
Initial police records of the October 2001 incident in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, which could not be accessed by the victim or his family under the Criminal Procedure Law, dismissed testimony given by a witness who said the vehicle was traveling on the wrong side of the road at speeds exceeding 70 kph.
The witness also claimed the driver was too drunk to realize he had hit a pedestrian.
The reason why this testimony was dismissed by police was not specified.
“It was strange from the very beginning since the driver was never arrested and his father, a powerful local figure, was explicitly telling us that he was able to influence proceedings,” said 36-year-old Kizawa.
“But we trusted police until the very end.”
His brother, Takehiro Nemoto, 40, a former post office worker, remains in a vegetative state in a hospital.
After prosecutors pressed police to reopen the investigation, the driver, a 32-year-old restaurant owner, was finally indicted without being placed in custody last July, on charges of professional negligence resulting in injury and drunken driving.
“Now I know that unless we will be able to closely monitor police probes, there will be no fair investigation for victims,” Kizawa said.
His belief is shared by many survivors of traffic accidents or the next of kin of those killed.
In recent years, an increasing number of people have grown dissatisfied with police investigations into their cases, and have demanded disclosure of police reports to victims and their families.
Kizawa currently heads a group of 150 traffic accident victims and next of kin calling for investigation reports to be disclosed to their side before any parties are held liable or charged.
Since it was established last September, The Network of Traffic Accident Victims Demanding Prompt Disclosure of Investigative Reports Into Traffic Accidents has petitioned the government and lawmakers.
Probes into traffic accidents tend to be based on statements provided by one side — the party held responsible — especially when accidents are fatal or victims’ injuries are too severe for them to testify.
If victims were allowed access to objective evidence, such as the outcome of on-the-spot inspections, photographs of the vehicles involved or the accident site, police would be more thorough and victims would be able to achieve justice in criminal trials and damages suits, as well as negotiate more fairly with offenders or insurance firms, the group claims.
During Wednesday’s general meeting of a nonpartisan group of 78 Diet members discussing issues pertaining to traffic accidents, victim representatives urged the government to curb the number of fatal traffic accidents in Japan, which saw 7,702 fatalities last year.
Some advocated increasing fines for traffic offenders, creation of a victim-offender reconciliation program and mandatory installment of a video camera on each vehicle to record accidents.
Members of Kizawa’s group meanwhile claimed that disclosure of investigative reports would be a realistic and effective step for fairer probes.
Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Ichiro Aizawa, who heads the lawmaker group, said his group would research cases in other countries where victims of traffic accidents have the right to access investigative records.
Kazuo Inoue, another Lower House member and secretary general of the group, said it is extremely unfair that “only victims are left devoid of accident information when even (such third parties) as insurance companies have access (to police probes).”
An insurance company insider pointed out that victims suffer a great disadvantage in negotiating with the parties held responsible — a process that starts immediately after an accident.
By dint of their professional knowledge, investigative methods and their access to police, insurance companies representing offenders have a huge advantage over victims, according to an accident investigator at a major nonlife insurance company.
He said police used to provide real-time updates to the firms during their investigations until a decade ago.
Though this practice has ceased, insurance firms still have access to police information via insurance research companies, which employ many retired police officers and have police connections.
“I personally believe that reports should be opened to the side of victims before an indictment is handed down so they can negotiate for a settlement from a better position than they are in now,” he said.
Meanwhile, officials at the Justice Ministry said it is difficult to treat traffic accidents differently from criminal cases and to disclose investigative information. They meanwhile reckoned that believe police always handle accidents properly.
But a police insider said this is not always so, due to deep-rooted structural factors within the force.
Hiromasa Saikawa, a former lieutenant of the Metropolitan Police Department, pointed out that the traffic division is the most disrespected police section and traditionally suffers from a lack of manpower and technology, which often results in inadequate accident investigations.
“The traffic division at each local police station also tends to have collusive ties with local industry leaders, especially those of trucking companies,” he said.
“The division does every favor for them in dealing with accidents involving locally influential people or the trucking industry.”
In the case of Kizawa’s brother, the driver is from a wealthy family that runs a well-known restaurant, and his father once worked as a senior official of the Narita Municipal Government.
Currently, local public prosecutors are investigating whether the father influenced the police investigation, including the possibility that he bribed senior Narita Police Station officials.