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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — All the old rules about drinking and driving in Japan don’t apply any more.

But not everyone has caught on to that fact just yet, including U.S. servicemembers.

Since the new, stricter laws took effect Sept. 19, nearly 69,000 drunken-driving cases have occurred nationwide. That is more than half the number of cases in all of 2006, according to the Japanese National Police Agency.

Although a breakdown of numbers for Americans in Japan under the status of forces agreement were unavailable Friday, U.S. Forces Japan officials said they have seen an increase of off-base DUIs by SOFA personnel since the law took effect.

The new laws impose harsher punishments than in the past, with up to three years in jail and $4,400 in fines for having a blood alcohol content between 0.03 and 0.079. Passengers in vehicles operated by a drunken driver and those who provide alcohol to someone who drives drunk also can be punished.

The need to recognize the changes to the law and stricter enforcement by Japanese police has never been greater, said Col. Daniel Rogers, the U.S. Forces Japan Judge Advocate.

“One drink is too many,” he said. “The old days when you figure out who was the least drunk to drive home are gone.”

Rogers cited a recent incident in which a servicemember on Okinawa had one beer in his home while doing housework. A few hours later, when he went off base to run errands, Japanese police stopped him at a checkpoint, and he was cited for driving under the influence with a BAC of 0.039.

“In almost every instance the person involved believed they were able to still drive,” Rogers said. “If you have had even one drink in the past four to five hours, you are too drunk to be on the road in Japan.”

In a case this past Thursday, Japanese police in Sasebo said they stopped a car with two Navy officers for speeding. The driver was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol with a 0.15 BAC.

Police also questioned the passenger for possibly letting a drunken person drive. However, police said Friday they decided not to hold the passenger responsible.

Passengers who can drive sober but let a drunken person drive could receive up to three years in prison or up to 500,000 yen, or about $4,400, in fines.

On Okinawa on Wednesday, Japanese police reported that while questioning an Air Force noncommissioned officer under suspicion of drunken driving, two passengers in the vehicle fled the scene.

Rogers said that since the new laws went into effect, he has seen at least two or three cases in which passengers have been cited in drunken-driving cases involving U.S. personnel.

And while he said he doesn’t know of any cases so far in which U.S. personnel have been charged with providing alcohol to someone who later drives drunk, he advised those hosting holiday parties to make sure they have a plan for their guests.

“Have a plan before you go out,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that you can’t drink responsibly; it just means that if you do drink you are committing yourself to not driving.”


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