• Chugoku Shimbun

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In the fall of 2019, when a vehicle moving at an extremely high speed crashed into a guard rail, the life of a 21-year-old first-year college student in Hiroshima Prefecture was forever changed.

Seated in the back seat of the car while traveling with friends, she was left severely disabled by the crash.

The driver, a young man then-18 years old, was charged with dangerous driving resulting in injury. But during his first trial at the Hiroshima District Court in March, he partially denied the charge, with his defense arguing that his case fell short of fulfilling the criteria for the crime.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the offense of dangerous driving resulting in death or injury being established. While there are severe penalties for those convicted of malicious driving under the statute, the threshold for its application remains high.

“My daughter may suffer for the rest of her life. Should the law really be left as it is?,” said the woman’s father, 52. He is calling for the law to be revised to broaden its use.

The incident occurred on Oct. 10, 2019, in the city of Higashihiroshima, Hiroshima Prefecture, as the woman, the driver and a 19-year-old young man, seated in the front passenger seat, were on their way to buy groceries.

According to the indictment, the young man was driving at about 104 kilometers per hour. When he tried to steer the car on a bend, he lost control of the vehicle and it crashed into a guard rail on the left-hand side of the road, seriously injuring the two passengers.

The Hiroshima Prefectural Police determined the speed of the car from tire tracks and other information, and arrested him on suspicion of dangerous driving resulting in injury. The Hiroshima District Public Prosecutors Office also indicted him for the same crime.

When the car crashed, the woman was thrown out of it. She narrowly escaped death, but suffered serious injuries, including damage to her cervical spinal cord that caused paralysis in both her arms and legs.

“I want to forget that day, but the pain and numbness in my legs — which are now immobilized — keep bringing up my memories,” said the woman, who lives at her parents’ home in Nagoya.

In the opening statement of his first trial, the prosecution pointed out that the driver had sped up to about 150 kilometers per hour at one point, despite repeated warnings from the other boy that he was driving too fast.

“I wanted to look cool,” he has said at the trial so far.

The accident occurred only a month after he acquired his driver’s license.

While he has apologized to those injured in the crash, he partially denied the charge on the basis that he had thought he could control the car on the bend. The defense argued that the boy was not aware he would encounter difficulty controlling the vehicle, and that as a result he could not be charged with the offense of dangerous driving.

Dangerous driving resulting in death or injury became a criminal offense in 2001 in response to a series of tragic traffic accidents. The maximum penalty for causing death is 20 years in prison, and 15 years for causing injuries.

The law, however, cannot be easily applied as it is necessary to establish the driving was willfully reckless. There have been many cases in which prosecutors or judges have felt the evidence was insufficient to constitute the crime, leading to lighter punishments.

In the Higashihiroshima case, too, the biggest focus is likely to be how the defendant’s claim that he wasn’t aware his driving was dangerous will be judged.

Ever since the offense was established, the families of victims have complained about the rigorous criteria for its application, which has already led to some changes.

In 2014, the Automobile Accident Punishment Law, which separated provisions related to automobile accidents from the Penal Code, was enacted, and a new category was added to the offense to cover dangerous driving involving alcohol and drugs.

According to the National Police Agency, there were about 300 to 400 cases in which charges of reckless driving were brought between 2011 and 2013. In 2014, after the law was revised, the figure rose to 491 cases, and then in 2020 to 731.

But Shuichiro Hoshi, a professor in traffic crime at Tokyo Metropolitan University, pointed out that “compared to alcohol and drugs, which are now punished more severely than before, society’s awareness of (the risks of) high-speed driving has not increased.”

He stresses the need to raise awareness of traffic norms, as well as the importance of discussions about the law’s revision with a view toward broadening its application.

A year and a half after the woman’s accident, she is currently undergoing rehabilitation both at home and at a hospital using a state-of-the-art robot. Because her treatment uses highly advanced techniques, the financial burden is considerable.

The insurance company the defendant is affiliated with, she says, is claiming that the advanced medical treatment is not covered by his insurance policy.

In May, the woman, who is unable to appear in court, sent a letter to the prosecution demanding that the defendant pay for her treatment. It took her about 30 minutes for her to write her own name in the letter.

Her father plans to collect signatures to request that the scope of application of the dangerous driving law be further expanded and that the punishment be more severe, and to lobby the government together with supporters.

“Traffic accidents can happen to anyone. I think we need stricter deterrent laws,” he said emphatically, having watched his daughter endure the pain of rehabilitation.

This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published June 11.

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