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A fired Fukuoka municipal official denied Tuesday he was too drunk to control his car when it slammed into the rear of another vehicle last August on a bridge, sending it into Hakata Bay and three children in it to their deaths.

In the opening session of his trial in the high-profile August 2006 traffic accident, which triggered public calls for tougher preventive measures and penalties against drunken driving, Futoshi Imabayashi, 22, told the Fukuoka District Court: “I reject the view that I had difficulty driving properly under the influence of alcohol,” while pleading guilty to charges of hit-and-run and failing to rescue the victims.

Imabayashi, who was fired from his job after the accident, had been waging a pretrial battle with prosecutors over whether he should be accused of a more serious offense than negligence.

Prosecutors charged Imabayashi in September with dangerous driving, saying he was heavily intoxicated and unable to control his car Aug. 25 when it rear-ended a sport utility vehicle driven by Akio Ogami, 34, causing it to plunge from the bridge.

Ogami and his wife, Kaori, 29, were injured. Trapped in the SUV, the couple’s sons, Hiroaki, 4, and Tomoaki, 2, and daughter, Saaya, 1, drowned.

Under a law that took effect in 2001 with the specific aim of toughening up penalties for serious traffic accidents, Imabayashi could face up to 20 years in prison, much harsher than the penalty for professional negligence resulting in death — the usual charge in traffic accidents.

Imabayashi apologized to the victims in court, saying, “I cannot find the words to express how much I want to apologize to the children who died in pain, taking in so much water.”

Imabayashi was allegedly driving at a speed of 100 kph when his car rear-ended the SUV. He had drunk a substantial amount of alcohol, including beer and “shochu” distilled spirits at his home and at a nearby bar beforehand, according to the indictment.

He also stands accused of fleeing the scene and drinking about 1 liter of water before being arrested in an apparent bid to cover up his drunken state.

Imabayashi’s counsel said in pretrial proceedings that he had not drunk alcohol to the extent that he was unable to properly maneuver his car, arguing instead that he was unable to avoid the SUV because it had suddenly braked hard in front of him as his attention was turned toward a passenger he was talking to.

The prosecutors claim Imabayashi’s alcohol intake rendered him drunk, and that is the only reason they can think of for his failure to take earlier evasive action, instead of his delayed actions within 15 meters of the SUV.

Imabayashi’s drunken driving was also apparent by the extremely wide turn he took at an intersection just before the accident, the prosecutors said.

Fewer road deaths

Kyodo News

The number of traffic accident deaths dropped to 6,352 in calendar 2006 from 6,871 the previous year, marking the sixth straight yearly decline, the government said Tuesday.

The fiscal 2006 white paper on traffic safety attributes the decline partly to tougher penalties against drunken driving.

Both the traffic accident tally, 886,864, and the number of people killed or injured in the accidents, 1,104,551, went down for the second year in a row.

The report also ascribes the downtrend to a rise in the percentage of people using seat belts to a record 89.1 percent, in addition to lower speeds at which cars were traveling just before accidents.

The white paper calls for zero tolerance on drunken driving, citing the accident last August in the city of Fukuoka, where a drunken driver crashed into a sport utility vehicle, killing three children.

The report says the introduction of parking wardens from the private sector under the revised Road Traffic Law that took effect last June helped reduce illegal parking, ease congestion and reduce the number of crashes involving parked cars.

For related stories:
Three kids killed when SUV plunges into sea
Struggling to put the brakes on the culture of drunk driving
Halting drunk drivers

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