Fatal crash brings Sasebo DUI crackdown
August 1, 2003
SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — A new traffic safety committee is laying down the law when it comes to drinking and driving here — one time, and you’re done.
Base commander Capt. Michael James recently implemented a Traffic Safety Committee recommendation that leaves little room for leniency.
Under the new regulation, drivers who violate the law prohibiting driving under the influence of alcohol will have their Japanese license revoked permanently, and their home state’s vehicle licensing agency will be notified.
The legal blood-alcohol limit in Japan and on base is 0.03. That means one serving of beer, wine or liquor could lead to a DUI charge.
The U.S. legal limit ranges from 0.08 to 0.10.
Sasebo’s Traffic Safety Committee first met June 11, and the committee already has made a number of recommendations to the base commander, said Jim Whalen, Safety Department director and committee co-chairman.
A total of 35 members — representing almost every base command — comprise the committee.
Response to fatal crash
The committee was formed at James’ direction after a local woman was killed — and her daughter seriously injured — April 11 in an automobile crash with Petty Officer 2nd Class Berry John Gibson, 29, who allegedly had been drinking.
Gibson was scheduled to appear for a court hearing Thursday, according to an official with the Nagasaki District Court in Sasebo. He was charged June 3 with causing death or bodily injury through negligence.
Sasebo Naval Base “is considering necessary actions and measures to prevent similar accidents from happening. We can tell you that the U.S. Navy has a zero-tolerance policy on alcohol abuse,” base spokesman Chuck Howard said shortly after the crash.
On May 26, safety officials launched the 101 Days of Summer campaign, highlighted by programs and events designed to keep people from drinking and driving.
101 Days of Summer refers to the time of year when the most accidents occur.
Since the program began, seven DUI cases have been tallied: Two involved USS Essex crew members, and two involved personnel from Assault Craft Unit One. One case each was tallied for personnel from the USS Juneau, USS Harpers Ferry and Amphibious Task Force 76.
Designated Driving Services
“We’ve increased our sobriety checkpoints by 55 percent,” Whalen said. “And the base has many programs and events designed to keep them from drinking and driving: the Single Sailor Program, Designated Driver Program, base-sponsored events like the MWR Tours and all the MWR sporting events.”
The Traffic Safety Committee, in conjunction with the Safety Department, is distributing Designated Driving Services in Japan cards to sailors.
The service is similar to a taxi service, except that two employees meet the drinking auto owner — one to drive the caller home and the other to drive his or her car home.
Officials hope sailors will use the cards rather than get behind the wheel.
“There’s a small fee to use the service, but it’s a lot cheaper than getting a DUI,” Whalen said.
The Sasebo Local Bar Association supports the use of the cards, meaning local club employees will contact the driving service on behalf of a patron.
Bombarded with information
The Navy culture in which heavy drinking was perceived as socially acceptable has perished, Whalen said, adding sailors today are bombarded by information and warnings against drinking and driving.
“They know they shouldn’t drink and drive. They know a DUI is a career-ending event,” Whalen said. “We want to find ways to get them to stop before taking that first drink if they are driving.” He added: “We need to make sure people understand they will be held accountable.”
Whalen’s statistics show the majority of drinking and driving cases — indeed all vehicle infractions here — involve E-4s and E-5s, “primarily E-5s,” he said.
“Among our violations for insurance, seat belts, talking on cell phone, parking, hit-and-run, speeding … our biggest offenders are E-5s, in part because we have more E-5s driving than any other rank,” he said.
Whalen said he welcomes input from people with ideas for the committee to study. His telephone number is DSN 252-3903, and his e-mail address is email@example.com.
Parking, punishment on table
Sasebo’s Traffic Safety Committee meets each month to brainstorm ways to curtail a variety of vehicle-related infractions.
A major concern is parking.
Vehicle Registration Division statistics show there are about 2,600 vehicles registered to the nearly 5,000 base residents.
“During the next three years … we will be losing about two-thirds of the available parking because of ongoing building projects” on Tategami Peninsula between Juliet and India basins, said Jim Whalen, Sasebo’s safety director. “Afterward, we’ll get most of it back.
“But in the meantime, we want to make sure our long-range vision is correct.”
The committee recommended to the base skipper that E-5s and below be allowed to drive only if authorized by their commands.
At present, there are no rank-dictated restrictions on driving or owning vehicles, but “some individual commands have made restrictions,” Whalen said.
The committee also recommended a three-tier punishment system for seat-belt and cell-phone law violators.
First-time offenders would receive three driving points. Second-time offenders would receive a 60-day license suspension; and third-timers, a one-year suspension, Whalen said.
The committee has met only twice so far, but the members are “looking at all aspects of driving to make driving safer for everyone concerned,” Whalen said.
“So far,” he added, “there have been really good questions and answers from the committee.”
— Greg Tyler