Utah cops chase bewildered Japanese tourists



The first night in the United States for a family of Japanese tourists ended with the parents being pulled from their rental car at gunpoint with their young son watching, after their confusion about American traffic laws set off a high-speed pursuit in southern Utah.

The pursuit began at 1 a.m. Saturday on Interstate 15 near the Utah-Arizona border when the couple’s car was spotted going just 37 mph (60 kph) and swerving between lanes, said Lt. Brad Horne, Utah Highway Patrol’s DUI unit commander.

More than a dozen patrolmen were working the area in a special DUI (driving under the influence) operation, and Horne said he figured the car was being driven by a drunken driver. Horne turned on his lights and siren to pull the car over.

Instead of pulling over, the driver sped up to 75 mph (120 kph) and began driving erratically, he said. Her speeds fluctuated between 40 mph and 75 mph as she weaved across lanes and into the shoulder.

Soon there were three patrol cars in pursuit, with other officers closing highway exits and setting tire spikes miles ahead, Horne said.

“It was literally red and blue lights in every direction,” Horne said.

The couple’s car skidded to a stop about 7 miles (11 km) north of where the pursuit began after three of the tires deflated after hitting the spikes.

A patrolman bellowed commands from a loudspeaker in his patrol car, telling the couple to exit and walk backward. Both directions of I-15 were closed as officers prepared to encounter hardened criminals.

Instead, a Japanese woman in her early 40s emerged.

“She would walk forward, backward, spin around — obviously she had no clue what we wanted her to do,” Horne said.

Still bracing for the worst, officers approached the car with guns drawn and pulled the woman and a man from the car. That’s when they saw the couple’s 7-year-old son in the backseat and realized the family didn’t speak English.

The boy was crying, and the parents appeared nervous and confused, Horne said.

“I think they were terrified,” he said.

Realizing they were dealing with language and cultural barriers, and not a drunken driver or fugitive, officers changed their strategy, Horne said. One officer consoled the boy and reunited him with his parents as others worked to get a Japanese-speaking officer on the phone.

They found one in northern Utah who spoke to the couple and learned they had arrived from Japan on Friday morning and rented a car to drive from California to Bryce Canyon in southern Utah.

The woman said she had no idea what she was supposed to do when the patrolman put on his lights and siren, so she sped up to get out of the way. She kept apologizing for crashing the car, not realizing they ran over tire spikes, Horne said. Patrolmen took the family to a motel and wished them safe travels.

Nobody was hurt and no cars damaged other than the flat tires, he said. About a dozen law enforcement officers were involved in some way.

Authorities don’t plan to pursue charges.

Horne said the couple didn’t have Japanese driver’s licenses with them, adding that he’s encountered many tourists in his three decades working with the Utah Highway Patrol, but has never seen a situation escalate like this.

“Red and blue lights are a pretty universal signal,” Horne said. “Regardless of nationality and language, when we put lights on, people pull over and stop.”

  • Jennifer McDowell

    It does not surprise me that the couple did not understand what red and blue lights meant as Japanese police officers always drive with their lights on. Does anyone know the reason for this?

    • Ron NJ

      Every Japanese police officer I’ve asked about this (more than a few) has told me it is to tell people “please be careful” – apparently ignoring the fact that distracting the crap out of people by rolling around with your lights on sure isn’t encouraging anyone to be more careful, if anything they probably just cause more accidents. In reality it’s probably more like “look at me, I’m a policeman!” showing off that has just become monkey see monkey do tradition at this point.

    • Saruma

      They may not have understood exactly what was going on, but I find it hard to believe that in Japan the appropriate reaction would be to randomly speed up and slow down and swerve all over the place.

      • Mr. X

        And drive with no license on them too.

  • Ron NJ

    If they didn’t have their Japanese licenses on them, then any IDP they had in their possession (if they in fact possessed one) was also void, as an IDP in and of itself: an IDP only provides a translation of the holder’s foreign driving license for law enforcement officials of countries that are participants in the IDP scheme – both your IDP and foreign license must be on your person at all times when operating a motor vehicle. If the operator of the motor vehicle either did not possess a license in their home country or did not have their license on them when operating a motor vehicle, the police should have prosecuted this woman as operating a vehicle without a license.
    Dumb on her part and dumb on the cops for not charging her; laws have no meaning if they are not enforced, and as always stated, ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’, especially when traveling abroad. JAF is more than happy to answer questions regarding driving with an IDP, while abroad, and so on, and also give you a handy pamphlet detailing everything when you apply for an IDP.

    • disqus_Gvs3G32z1K

      Indeed. This was reckless endangerment of a child. They really shouldn’t have gotten off so lightly.

  • Kenneth G F Brown

    From Wikipedia in Japan

    Red: Police Department, Fire Department, and any other emergency vehicles.
    Amber: Engineer vehicles and Japan Highway Public Corporation vehicles.
    Blue: Security and City vehicles.

    You do not have to pull over for Blue lights in Japan… and blue light vehicles do not have the legal right to stop your car. lost and terrified in translation.


  • superdupercrispy

    Driving on I-15 near the Arizona/Utah border is challenging in the middle of the day; at 1 AM it would be very difficult for someone who has never been there before. It’s a beautiful drive, and you’re much better off going in the daylight when you can see the curves and stop on the shoulder to take pictures of the Virgin River Canyon. I hope they made it to Bryce; it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

  • Mike Wyckoff

    I haven’t seen too many people in Japan pull over for ambulances, have you? lol In France, they’d just hit you and in Canada you can be fined. but in Japan ambulances are considered by some to be a “jama” lol true story