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Traffic accidents involving alcoholic drivers have long been a problem.

A 2014 revision of the Road Traffic Law allowed authorities to suspend or revoke a driver’s license if the driver is an alcoholic, even if he or she had not caused an accident. But there have been few cases in which the driver’s license has actually been suspended or revoked for that reason, due in part to the reluctance of doctors to file the complaint necessary.

Among those charged with drunked driving in Fukuoka Prefecture from 2015 through the end of July, 131 people were required to undergo a test to check for alcoholism. Of them, 43 were diagnosed as alcoholics.

Alcoholics continue to account for a certain proportion of those caught driving under the influence, according to a senior Fukuoka Prefectural Police official, and there is an urgent need for the government to take measures to prevent tragic accidents.

In one case, a 55-year-old man in the city of Kitakyushu rammed into a minivehicle two years ago after he had drunk about 10 cups of shōchū distilled liquor that morning.

Four years before the accident, he was diagnosed as an alcoholic, and had been in and out of the hospital four times.

“I didn’t think I was driving under the influence of alcohol,” said the man.

On that morning, he thought he was “done drinking for the time being,” drove a minivan in his pajamas and crashed into a small car that was stopping at a red light.

After graduating from university, the man had joined a company listed on the first section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. He was performing extremely well at the company, but was forced to quit after he started drinking too much while wining and dining clients.

“I was emptying a bottle of whiskey every night,” he said.

He was treated for alcoholism but was unable to quit drinking. It was then that he caused the car crash. He was caught red-handed, suspected of drunked driving, and was given a suspended sentence. He lost his new job and went bankrupt.

“I should never have gotten a driver’s license,” he said.

Now, riddled with regret, he is treated at a facility that supports people recovering from alcoholism.

The revised Road Traffic Law stipulates that doctors who diagnose a patient as an alcoholic can file a request for the patient’s driver’s license to be revoked or suspended to the public safety commission in each prefecture.

The Japan Medical Association has also issued the guidelines on the procedure, but the Fukuoka Prefectural Police say that doctors do so in only a few cases a year in the prefecture.

Why? Susumu Higuchi, director of Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and an expert on alcoholism, said that many doctors are first and foremost unaware that such a procedure exists.

Even if they know about it, they are also reluctant to use it as they’re unsure about the impact it would have on the patients’ lives as well as their past records of arrest and traffic accidents, he said.

Takefumi Yuzuriha, director of the Hizen Psychiatric Center in Saga Prefecture, pointed out that doctors should be cautious about revoking someone’s driver’s license from the viewpoint of human rights, noting that many patients need cars to get around.

Nonetheless, Higuchi said the doctor’s decision to file for such a procedure is one way to reduce social risks if the patient is highly likely to drink and drive, even if they undergo educational programs to prevent drunked driving as part of their treatment.

“In order for the system to work, doctors need to have access to cases and data that allow them to determine whether it is better to revoke the driver’s license,” he said.


‘Alcohol interlocks’ offer practical solution for transport firms and drivers

A device that prevents a car from starting when it detects alcohol exceeding a specified level from the driver’s breath — called an “alcohol interlock” — has been attracting attention as a measure to prevent drunken driving.

While alcohol interlocks are more prevalent in Western countries, some Japanese companies are starting to introduce them and the central government is studying ways to promote them, too.

According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, some countries require drunken-driving offenders to install alcohol interlocks, while others including the United States, Canada and Finland allow offenders whose licenses have been suspended to drive only vehicles equipped with such devices.

“We will take into account the examples overseas as a reference when we consider promoting the devices in Japan,” a ministry official said.

Fukuoka-based transport firm Fukuoka Soko Co. introduced the device to its truck fleet in 2014 after a driver for its partner company drank alcohol while on duty.

“Even one drunken-driving accident can instantly destroy trust in the company,” says Tatsuya Kitajima, director and general manager of the firm’s land transport division.

At first, employees were puzzled by the fact that it takes up to two minutes every time just to start the truck.

“As we continued to use the system, however, the (drivers) gradually began to feel that this was the daily routine,” Kitajima said.

The system has also become a strong symbol of the company’s commitment to never drink and drive, and is helping to win the trust of customers, he added.

Tokai Denshi Inc. in Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture, began selling alcohol interlocks in 2009. So far, the company has sold about 2,700 devices at around ¥150,000 each.

Most of its customers are transportation companies, but some buy the device for family members who are alcoholics, the company said.

This section features topics and issues from the Kyushu region covered by the Nishinippon Shimbun, the largest daily newspaper in Kyushu. The original articles were published Sept. 8.

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