The government decided Friday to introduce tighter rules to crack down on smartphone use while driving, against a backdrop of a rising number of road accidents caused by inattentive drivers.
Starting Dec. 1, stricter penalties will be handed out, including higher fines, a roughly threefold increase in driving penalty points and lengthier prison sentences.
There were 2,790 accidents in 2018 linked to drivers distracted by smartphones, of which 42 were fatal, an increase by 2.3 times in 10 years.
“We need to foster the social conscience that the use of smartphones while driving is a dangerous and impermissible act,” said a senior official at the National Police Agency.
Under the new rules, made in amendments to the road traffic law, the number of driving penalty points applied to drivers caught speaking or otherwise using their mobile phones will be increased from one point to three points. In instances where others were endangered six points, rather than the previous two, will be imposed.
Fines will be increased from ¥7,000 ($65) to ¥25,000 for cases involving large cars, from ¥6,000 to ¥18,000 for standard-sized cars, from ¥6,000 to ¥15,000 for motorbikes and ¥5,000 to ¥12,000 for mopeds.
Repeat offenders face prison sentences of up to six months or fines of up to ¥100,000.
Unlike in the past, those whose smartphone use endangered others will immediately be held criminally liable. If charged, they will face a harsher penalty of either a prison sentence of up to one year or a fine of up to ¥300,000.
Meanwhile, the government is also tackling road rage after a recent spate of fatal accidents. The National Police Agency says it is studying draft proposals including heavier penalties.
Calls for tighter rules for those using smartphones while driving have risen after a series of fatal car accidents caused by drivers playing the smartphone game Pokemon Go, which was introduced in July 2016.
In October 2016, a 9-year-old boy was fatally struck by a truck while walking on a pedestrian crosswalk in Ichinomiya, Aichi Prefecture. The truck driver admitted to police that he was playing the augmented reality game when he hit the boy.
After the Ichinomiya Municipal Government and the local prefectural police demanded that Niantic Inc., the application’s developer, take safety precautions, the firm made it so that all passengers and the driver can’t play when in a vehicle traveling above a certain speed.
In September 2018, a man who was driving while reading manga on a smartphone caused a fatal accident in Minamiuonuma, Niigata Prefecture.