• Kyodo

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An 89-year-old former top bureaucrat pleaded not guilty Thursday over a 2019 car crash in which a woman and her young daughter were killed in an incident that stirred debate about the increasing number of older drivers on Japanese roads and the dangers they pose.

"I remember I did not keep pressing on the accelerator. The car had some issues and was out of control," said Kozo Iizuka, a former chief of the now-defunct Agency of Industrial Science and Technology under the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, in the first hearing of his trial at the Tokyo District Court.

Iizuka's negligence charge comes from the accusation he ran a red light after mistaking the gas pedal for the brake, hitting and killing the bicycle-riding Mana Matsunaga, 31, and her 3-year-old daughter Riko when his vehicle entered a crosswalk in Tokyo's busy Ikebukuro district on April 19, 2019.

He also injured nine others ages 2 to 90, including his wife who was a passenger in the car, according to the indictment.

In the hearing, Iizuka offered an apology to Takuya Matsunaga, the 34-year-old husband and father of the victims, and Mana's father Yoshinori Uehara, 63, who were both present in the courtroom.

"I offer a heartfelt apology," Iizuka said, turning to the bereaved family members and bowing after taking the stand. "I have no words when I think of the sadness and heartache of losing your two loved ones."

But Matsunaga told a news conference after the hearing he did not want Iizuka to apologize if he did not admit responsibility. "I didn't think he was giving true consideration to the two lost lives and the bereaved family," he said.

Prosecutors said in their opening remarks that Iizuka's car accelerated to 96 kilometers per hour when he mistakenly stepped on the gas pedal, narrowly missing another car and swerving between lanes before hitting the mother and girl.

The car's brakes and accelerator were not found to be faulty during a service conducted about a month before the accident, and there is no evidence of Iizuka applying the brakes during the incident, they said.

The prosecutors presented as evidence a dashcam video from Iizuka's car, which was played for judges and defense lawyers during the hearing.

Iizuka, who was also injured in the accident and hospitalized, was indicted without arrest in February, triggering public outcry that he had been given preferential treatment due to his former government position. He came to the courtroom in a wheelchair and with a cane.

A graduate of the University of Tokyo, Iizuka began his career in 1953 by joining what is now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. He resigned as head of the science agency in 1989 and served as vice president of farm machinery-maker Kubota Corp.

The accident prompted many older people in Japan to give up driving.

Last year, a record 601,022 driver's licenses were voluntarily surrendered, of which 350,428, or 58.3 percent, belonged to those age 75 or older, up 58,339 from the year before, according to police data.

The number of fatal traffic accidents per 100,000 license holders age 75 or older stood at 6.9 in 2019, more than double the figure of 3.1 for those under 75, National Police Agency data showed.

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