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Japan’s crowded highways, limited parking spaces and high gasoline prices would seem likely to discourage all but the most determined drivers. Yet a glance at any busy urban road makes it clear that Japan is still a nation that considers endurance, if not patience, a leading virtue. It is good to know then that new vehicle-safety tests added this month to the existing tests by the Transport Ministry are said to make Japan’s tests the strictest in the world.

That is welcome news, even though tests alone cannot guarantee safety. Japan’s road-accident record hardly ranks high. Although the traffic-death toll fell by 205 to below 10,000 last year, the combined figure for injuries and deaths in road accidents nationwide reached a record of more than 1 million in 1999, the second consecutive annual increase. The number of accidents soared by 46,485 from the previous year for a record total of 850,363, the seventh year in a row to register an increase. With traffic fatalities already exceeding 7,000 this year, no cause for optimism is apparent.

The Transport Ministry’s new tests are designed to measure the damage caused to front-seat dummies and cars when the front right side of a vehicle is rammed into a projection such as a concrete bridge support before it hits a wall behind the projection. These are in addition to the two tests that have long been standard, head-on and side collision tests. The ministry says Japan is now the only country that conducts all three types, and this year the ministry is applying the new combined series to 25 of the currently most popular car models.

Longtime drivers and new car buyers alike often complain, with some justification, about the extensive red tape imposed by the Transport Ministry on vehicle ownership. The ministry has always responded that safety was its paramount interest. Car owners may well have second thoughts about their objections in the wake of the revelation that Mitsubishi Motors Corp. systematically concealed consumer complaints about defective vehicles for more than two decades, quietly repairing the defects instead of reporting them to the ministry as the law recommends.

No fatal accidents are known to have been caused by the defects, such as clutches that malfunctioned and brakes that failed. Yet newly safety-conscious drivers of cars produced by that company, as well as by other makers, are asking how the coverup could have continued so long. Were Transport Ministry monitors asleep at the switch or, as critics charge, was this another example of collusive ties between an industry and the government agency supposed to supervise it?

Although other vehicle makers have just announced recalls to replace or repair defective parts, calls by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations for changes in the relevant law deserve support. In the wake of the Mitsubishi Motors scandal, the ministry should indeed have the authority to mandate recalls on its own and to impose severer penalties on companies that fail to report recalls. Recent experience also shows that automakers should be legally required to report consumer complaints to the ministry. Mitsubishi Motors, against which criminal charges were filed last month, has now announced “remedial measures” to strengthen quality control and improve supervision of its recall system, but the steps may come too late to fully restore public confidence in the safety of its products. That is proved by the serious slump in its sales since the scandal broke.

In any case, the Transport Ministry hardly seems justified in trumpeting the strictness of its car-safety tests when it is known that Japanese automakers long refrained from incorporating in models for sale in the domestic market the extra safety features required in export models by foreign governments. Japan’s double-sided view of road safety is further shown by the seasonal campaigns that bring whistle-blowing police out in force to crack down on even minor violations. Drivers return to their regular “normal” rule breaking with impunity, however, as soon as the campaign ends.

Many elements are involved in the safety of the vehicles on the nation’s roads. Not least among them, it is now clearly understood, is the risk to human health posed by noxious exhaust emissions. It has recently been shown by a research institute in the Netherlands that the way Japan measures the dangerous substances in these emissions registers considerably lower concentrations than the tests used in both the European Union and the United States. In still one more example of lax attention to public safety, the central government has not reviewed the exhaust-emission testing method for more than 10 years.

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