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Rational observers of the chaotic traffic conditions on Japan’s crowded highways and busy urban areas long ago concluded that improvements were overdue. So the surprise yearend announcement by the National Police Agency that it is proposing stricter penalties for drunken driving, hit-and-run accidents, driving without a license and other serious traffic offenses is welcome. At the same time, a question arises: Why did it take the NPA so long? The accident total for 2000 had already reached 837,480 by the end of November, an increase of 8.5 percent over the same period in the previous year.

The figure of 850,363 accidents in 1999 set a record for the seventh consecutive year. The police agency predicted a repetition for 2000, citing the increasing number of vehicles on the roads and the growing number of aging drivers. Many of the vehicles, however, are trucks that inflict death, injury or major damage when the intoxicated or exhausted driver causes a rear-end collision. The NPA’s draft revisions to the current Road Traffic Law call for increases in both prison sentences and fines, with some fines rising by up to six times.

Notably, prison sentences of from one to five years could be imposed not only on drivers guilty of the most serious violations, but on anyone who permits such behavior as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, driving for extended periods without sleep or driving without a license. Surely that includes the operators of transport firms or other businesses who require their drivers to work unreasonable schedules. The NPA proposals will be included in a bill to be submitted to the next regular Diet session in late February, for the first overall review of penalties since the present law was enacted in 1960. If implemented, the increase in the upper limits of the fines will be the first in 15 years.

The waits have been too long. Maybe the police were lulled by the slight drop in traffic deaths in the last few years. Surely they do not credit that to their brief semiannual safety campaigns, conducted amid much ephemeral whistle-blowing and lecturing. As long ago as last spring, the Management and Coordination Agency noted that improved emergency medical treatment and better automobile safety features were responsible for the decrease. In any event, an annual death toll approaching 10,000 and the combined death and injury total of 1 million in 1999 are both unacceptable.

NPA officials say they believe tougher penalties would help reduce the serious accident rate. Perhaps they would, but only if the revised law is regularly and rigidly enforced. To be sure, the nation’s police officers cannot be expected to prevent every traffic violation before it occurs, any more than they can solve every petty theft. But the alarming increase in serious accidents caused by truck drivers who have fallen asleep at the wheel or drunk too much before setting out suggests that even the threat of higher fines or longer prison terms may not be enough to ensure compliance with the law.

The Transport Ministry apparently thinks so. Even before the Diet debate on the NPA proposals begins, the ministry is taking steps to require such drivers to undergo professional counseling, starting from July. Officials say they also intend to be stricter in imposing administrative measures on the employers of drivers guilty of major accidents, such as temporary suspension of vehicle use in their business or even revoking their business license. It is noteworthy that after a short-lived decrease, fatal accidents caused by drunken drivers are once more on the rise. This is especially the case in Tokyo, fueled by the large popular drinking establishments with parking lots attached that have sprung up along the main entry roads to the capital. Few attempt to limit service to drivers.

Before submitting its bill to the Diet, the NPA is soliciting opinions from various quarters, including the general public. The views of drivers and nondrivers alike should be listened to, since the planned revisions also include increasing the period of validity for a driver’s licenses to five years from the current three and imposing higher fines for illegal parking that hinders accessibility for the elderly and disabled.

Agency officials acknowledge that their proposals were largely prompted by complaints from bereaved families of traffic accident victims that the present penalties for serious offenses are too light. Prominent among the protesters are the parents whose two small daughters were trapped in the flaming wreckage of their car on the Tomei Expressway after it was struck from behind by a drunken truck driver who received only a four-year prison sentence. Their tireless campaign deserves much of the credit for goading the National Police Agency into action.

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