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The recent deaths of three young children in Fukuoka in a car accident caused by a drunk driver has highlighted Japanese society’s misplaced tolerance toward driving under the influence of alcohol and the lack of awareness among drivers that it is illegal to drive after ingesting alcohol. Even worse, many people drink and drive believing that the chance of the police catching them is nil. It is time that Japanese society step up its efforts to eliminate drunk driving, including increasing the effectiveness of police action and creating campaigns that enhance public awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving.

The Fukuoka accident occurred shortly before 11 p.m. on Aug. 25. A car driven by a 22-year-old employee of the Fukuoka municipal government rear-ended a sport utility vehicle carrying a family of five — a husband and wife and their three children — on a bridge in Fukuoka City. The impact caused the SUV to smash through a 1-meter-high guardrail and plunge 14 meters into Hakata Bay. Although the parents managed to rescue their 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter from the sunken car, both died later. Their 4-year-old son drowned inside the car.

In addition to arresting the driver, police apprehended two of his friends. One, a 22-year-old man, is suspected of taking several bottles of drinking water to the accident scene, after being called by the driver, to help the driver try to dilute the smell of alcohol on his breath. The other friend, a 32-year-old man, is suspected of asking the driver for a ride home before the accident even though he was aware that the driver had been drinking. The police investigation will unravel to what extent friends and acquaintances were aware of the driver’s condition, and will hopefully serve as a warning to citizens who are lenient toward those who drink and drive.

Driving under the influence of alcohol is a crime that can result in property damage, injury and death. At first the Fukuoka prefectural police suspected the city government worker of negligence leading to death. Investigative authorities now plan to indict him on a more serious charge — “dangerous driving” leading to death, punishable by imprisonment of up to 20 years. Investigators think the circumstances of the case meet one of the two criteria for applying the more serious charge: either abnormal driving due to the influence of alcohol or drugs, or a loss of control of a vehicle due to extremely high speed or a lack of skills.

Before the accident, the driver drank beer and shochu at one establishment and brandy at another. His car was doing nearly 100 kph when it smashed into the SUV.

To discourage drink driving by civil workers the Kochi prefectural government in 1997 decided in principle to fire all employees and officials shown to have driven under the influence of alcohol. After the Aug. 25 accident, Fukuoka Mayor Hirotaro Yamasaki announced a policy of dismissing city workers and officials even if they are arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. The Nagasaki city government and the Kanagawa prefectural government followed suit with similar announcements.

The number of fatal traffic accidents caused by drunk drivers and the percentage of drunk-driver involvement in all fatal traffic accidents in the first seven months of the year have gradually increased over the past three years: from 401 (11.2 percent) in 2004 to 412 (12.5 percent) in 2005 and 419 (13.6 percent) in 2006. Because cases of drunk driving continue to make headlines, the National Police Agency fears that the 2001 inclusion of “dangerous driving” as a crime into the Criminal Law, and the 2002 enactment of the revised Road Traffic Law with harsher punishments may be losing their deterrent effect.

The Fukuoka accident prompted the NPA to launch a nationwide crackdown the week of Sept. 12 on drinking and driving. Such crackdowns should be carried out more often, and without prior warning. Doing so would help change the attitude of those who drink and drive thinking that they will not be caught by the police. Another measure might be to place warning notices on actual alcohol containers and inside businesses with liquor licenses that list the legal punishments for driving under the influence of alcohol. Public-service announcements could also be broadcast on television and radio to warn of the dangers of drinking and driving. In addition, a system that automatically locks a vehicle’s ignition when a certain level of alcohol is detected in a driver’s breath should be developed and introduced.

After the Fukuoka accident, a taxi company in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, mandated that its drivers take a breath-analyzer test at the start of their shift instead of punching a time card. This meaningful effort only cost the company about 300,000 yen, a small price to pay for making the roads safer.

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