The National Police Agency’s proposal to stiffen penalties for drunk driving reflects recent public demand for severer punishment of drunk drivers. At the same time, the proposal prods the public to drastically change its own attitude toward drinking and driving.

The proposal not only calls for stiffer penalties for drunken drivers but also envisages applying the same penalties to those who provide alcoholic beverages to potential drivers or vehicles to drunk drivers. It prohibits people from riding in vehicles driven by drunk drivers, stipulating punishment for violators. The proposal will be written into a revised Road Traffic Law. The NPA hopes that the revision will come into force by yearend following Diet deliberations.

Stronger calls for severer punishment of drunk drivers were spurred by the deaths of three young children in Fukuoka last August. A sport utility vehicle carrying a couple and their children plunged into Hakata Bay from a bridge when it was rear-ended by a car driven by a Fukuoka municipal government employee. The mother dived under water many times in an attempt to rescue one child who was trapped inside the car. The public was moved by the story and was at the same time angered by the media report that the city-government employee had called a friend to bring him bottled water so that he could dilute the smell of alcohol on his breath.

In a multiple-choice October poll by the Cabinet Office, 73 percent of those surveyed called for severer punishment of drunk drivers and 44 percent favored similar penalties for people who choose to ride in vehicles driven by such drivers.

The tragedy in Fukuoka also prompted the NPA to launch a nationwide crackdown on drunk driving. The number of fatal traffic accidents caused by drunk drivers declined by 51 percent from a year before to 25 in October, by 43.7 percent to 40 in November, and by 54.2 percent to 33 in December, making an annual total of 611 — a 13.6 percent drop from 2005.

Under the NPA proposal, a drunk driver would be imprisoned for up to five years or fined up to 1 million yen, compared with the present punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to 500,000 yen. Maximum imprisonment for a hit-and-run drunk driver would be doubled from the current seven years and six months to 15 years.

If a drunk driver kills a person in a hit-and-run accident, he or she could face up to 20 years’ imprisonment under a 2001 revision of the Road Traffic Law. The severer punishment incorporated in the proposal is expected to help deter those people who drink and drive under the belief that chances of being caught by the police is extremely unlikely.

The current Road Traffic Law prohibits providing alcoholic beverages to potential drivers but does not stipulate punishment for violators. Law-enforcement authorities are now invoking provisions of the penal code against those who abet drunk driving. Penalties are currently half of those who commit the crime abetted. Under the NPA proposal, those who provide alcohol beverages to potential drivers or vehicles to drunk drivers could be imprisoned for up to five years or fined up to 1 million yen — the same as for the crime of drunk driving. A person who has been drinking with a friend and who then lets the friend drive his or her vehicle under the influence of alcohol could also be punished under the proposed provision.

What is revolutionary about the NPA proposal is that it bans people from even being passengers in vehicles driven by drunk drivers. Violators would face up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to 500,000 yen.

Thus a person who does not have the courage to refuse the offer of a ride from a drunk driver could also be punished. People would have to keep in mind that when out drinking with friends, accepting a ride back home or to another bar from someone who has been drinking would be treated as a crime.

When it comes to the actual application of the new penalties, however, difficulty arises. Investigators will have to prove that a passenger in a vehicle driven by a drunk driver had prior knowledge that the driver was drunk.

Investigators may also face difficulty when investigating other types of abettors. Nevertheless, the NPA proposal providing punishment for abettors will serve as an admonition to Japanese society, which up to now has shown a general over-tolerance toward driving under the influence of alcohol.

The message is clear. Citizens must become stricter toward people who drink and drive. Refusing to ride a car driven by a drunk person may not be enough to reduce the incidence of drunk driving. Citizens are called on to gather the courage to tell all drivers to never drink and drive.

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