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It’s intimidating enough for some American drivers heading outside the gates of U.S. military installations in the Pacific.

Roads are fraught with congestion. Landmarks all seem to look alike. And the many tight, narrow streets wouldn’t be large enough for one-way traffic in the United States, let alone two-way access.

Pedestrians and bicycles dart into traffic.

And in Japan and Okinawa, motorists must adjust to driving on the opposite sides of their vehicles and roads.

The prospect of getting into an off-base accident — where translation becomes an issue — adds more anxiety for U.S. drivers.

Contact the authorities

In the aftermath of off-base incidents — no matter how minor — status-of-forces-agreement personnel in Japan and Okinawa are urged to contact local police and U.S. installation law enforcement authorities.

Capt. Mel Turner, an operations officer with the 374th Security Forces Squadron at Yokota Air Base, Japan, said military police often can assist in translation and interactions with the Japanese police.

If motorists aren’t able to locate the nearest “koban,” or police box, they should call 110 — the Japanese equivalent of 911 — from any phone to report an accident, according to Tsutomu Ono, head of the Yokosuka Police’s traffic division. The line features English-speaking operators at all times.

To ensure a full report is filed, it’s important to stay at an accident scene until released by police, said Joe Tenis, the U.S. Forces Japan deputy provost marshal. Base community members also should get the other party’s name, insurance policy, license plate number and contact information.

Master Sgt. Shawn Turcotte, superintendent of Yokota’s Ground Safety Office, said drivers should not try to resolve any accident situation without a police presence. Authorities will ensure there is documentation and help the motorist avoid problems if they go to court.

In an accident, drivers should attempt to move their vehicle out of the way only if it’s causing a secondary hazard to other motorists, according to Turcotte.

“Try not to move your vehicle,” he said. “This will help the police better evaluate the situation.”

And a few moves should never be considered.

“If you are involved in an accident off base, don’t leave the scene, even for a little while,” Tenis said, explaining that could result in a hit-and-run charge.

Attempted bribery of Japanese police to escape responsibility is another big no-no.

It’s also a good idea for SOFA personnel to contact a sponsor or supervisor upon returning to base after an off-base accident, Turner said.

Also in Japan, police can be notified of injuries such as whiplash after a report is logged, he added.

“They should report it to the police,” Ono said. “Make sure you go and see the doctor for even anything that seems minor.”

According to Ono, there were 44 accidents with injuries caused by SOFA individuals in Yokosuka last year. More than half occurred during minor fender-benders or collisions when drivers were making a turn, he said.

U.S. Forces Japan officials said they don’t track accident statistics, but the various component commands do.

Who’s at fault?Scott Champion, a former airman now working as a U.S. civilian employee at Yokota, said he had a hard time convincing Japanese police that he wasn’t at fault in a New Year’s Day accident in 1990.

Champion said a Japanese driver backed into his car as they were waiting to exit a parking lot.

“He hit the door of my car so hard it was almost touching the steering wheel,” said Champion, who at the time was still serving on active duty.

The driver apologized, telling Champion he accepted full responsibility for the accident. The police, however, weren’t so sure.

“All they saw were the ‘Y’ plates and an American standing there,” he said, adding that it took the Japanese driver 20 to 30 minutes to convince the police.

Champion called the base police, who helped translate after they arrived.

Upon inspection of an off-base accident scene, Japanese police determine culpability, according to Ono.

If authorities believe it to be a criminal offense, he said, they can take custody. But even if they don’t, a case can still be forwarded to prosecutors.

Ono said prosecutors decide whether an indictment is warranted and SOFA drivers can face two types of penalties if they caused an accident — criminal and civil. That also covers potential compensation for damages.

According to U.S. Forces Japan, administrative action is possible for minor infractions, including the assessment of points against a driver’s license, but it’s generally left to a commander’s discretion.

Japanese police also don’t distinguish between a vehicle’s driver and its owner when figuring out accountability in accidents or cases of misconduct, USFJ officials say.

In June, the Japanese government revised its Road Traffic Law to tighten drunken-driving penalties. Under the new measure, which goes into effect Sept. 19, a vehicle owner who’s sober but lets an intoxicated driver get behind the wheel of his or her car could face five years in jail and an $8,000 fine.

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this story.

Driving in Japan is a different experience

TOKYO — Beyond having to adjust to driving on the opposite side of the road, many challenges await American drivers when they leave base to venture onto the streets of Japan.

“I was really nervous at first. I used to literally shake,” said Sonya Johnson, who has lived at Yokosuka Naval Base for about seven months with her husband.

Particularly concerning, Johnson said, was the habit of some pedestrians walking along the highway to start crossing the road, regardless of the traffic, just by “throwing their hands in the air and walking out into the street.”

And driving through the maze of downtown Tokyo was just as intense for Mary Hartman, a military spouse living off base near Yokota.

“My heart was in my throat as I whizzed by intersections, hoping I don’t miss the right one,” she said. “Because if I do, I know it will take me forever to get turned around.”

Other drivers said they adjusted quickly to the road conditions but added there are still plenty of potential perils, especially bicycles.

“They just go wherever they want, without stopping or even looking,” said Airman 1st Class Donald Yanito-Duncan, who works for the 5th Air Force at Yokota and has been driving in Japan for about a year. “And if you hit anybody, you’ll end up paying a lot of money.”

“People on bikes act like they are in cars,” said Tech. Sgt. Sharon Newton, from the 374th Medical Group. “You really have to keep your eyes open.”

Newton, who has been driving in Japan for about seven months, recommends that new drivers take their time before going off base.

“Definitely drive around base for a while to get used to the roads,” she said. “And when you start driving off base, do it during the daytime and not during rush hour.”

Yanito-Duncan, whose 1996 Nissan Gloria “takes up a lot of space on the narrow roads,” had more generalized advice for new drivers.

“Watch out for everything,” he said, “and buy a small car.”

Bryce S. Dubee

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