Moves are afoot to tighten penalties for acts of road rage that could result in a serious accident. The dangerous acts of drivers persistently tailgating other cars or motorcycles on expressways to intimidate them, or swerving and cutting in front of them to force them to stop, have gained public attention following some high-profile fatal incidents in recent years.
However, the road traffic law does not have a provision penalizing the act of road rage itself. The government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are now weighing the introduction of tighter penalties to deter road rage, which poses a growing threat to safety on our nation’s highways and byways.
Last year, the National Police Agency ordered police forces nationwide to crack down on and tighten the penalties for road rage by applying all possible legal means, including making arrests on suspicion of dangerous driving resulting in death or injury.
In 2018, the police caught roughly 13,000 drivers engaged in dangerous acts — about 90 percent of them on expressways — by violating the requirement under the road traffic law to maintain a sufficient distance from the vehicle in front of them. But while the number represented an increase of 1.8 times from the previous year, that offense carries only a maximum jail term of three months or a fine of up to ¥50,000 — which are deemed too light given the grave consequence that such acts could potentially cause.
In June 2017, a man driving a car on the Tomei Expressway in Kanagawa Prefecture swerved in front of a van to force it to stop. A large truck coming from behind crashed into the van, killing two of its passengers and injuring two others. In July last year, a university student riding his motorcycle was persistently tailgated by a man driving a car on a road in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture — until he was hit by the car and killed when his motorcycle crashed.
Last month, a 43-year-old man from the city of Osaka overtook another vehicle on the Joban Expressway in Ibaraki Prefecture and then engaged in dangerous driving such as repeatedly swerving to force the vehicle to stop over a distance of several kilometers. When the car finally stopped, the man repeatedly punched the victim in the face. After being put on a nationwide wanted list, the man was arrested eight days later.
The suspect was quoted as telling police that he became enraged because the victim’s car was slow and he thought he was being blocked. But while the police are reportedly contemplating establishing a case of assault against the suspect, the crime of assault carries two years in prison at the most, so it’s debatable whether the penalties are heavy enough in light of the grave harm that his acts might have potentially caused.
In the 2017 incident on the Tomei Expressway, the Yokohama District Court gave the accused an 18-year prison term last December. While the act of forcing the victims’ van to stop in and of itself did not constitute an act of dangerous driving, the victims’ fatalities were caused by his act of obstructing their van, and therefore their deaths were the result of his road rage even though he was not behind the wheel at the time of the crash, the court ruled.
In its January ruling on the death of the motorcyclist in Sakai, the local branch of the Osaka District Court sentenced the driver who hit the victim to 16 years in prison for murder, judging that he smashed his car into the motorcycle while aware that he could kill the victim.
In both cases, the accused and their defense have appealed to a higher court. Even though their acts deserve condemnation, the legal interpretation that led to these sentences may vary according to the judges in each court. In order to deter these dangerous acts and set guidelines on handing down appropriate punishment, acts of road rage should be clearly defined as an offense under the road traffic law and provisions for penalizing them stipulated.
In the Joban Expressway case, the sequence of events from the suspect’s car blocking the victim’s vehicle to the suspect punching the victim was recorded by a dashboard camera in the victim’s car. Installing such devices, which can offer indisputable evidence of violent and other illegal acts, should be promoted as an effective deterrent against road rage incidents.
Some research findings show that 1 out of 2 drivers have experienced being tailgated. To eliminate the threat to traffic safety posed by road rage incidents, legal and other measures should be promptly taken to combat such dangerous acts.