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Japan will stiffen penalties for drunken driving this fall, targeting not only intoxicated drivers but people who provide alcohol to potential drivers and vehicles to drunken drivers.

Vehicle owners, for example, who let others who have been drinking alcohol drive their car could get five years in jail and an $8,000 fine. Another change increases the maximum penalty for a drunken driver from three years in jail to five.

“They got a lot tougher,” said W.R. “Lucky” Hawkins, Yokosuka Naval Base safety officer. He noted that the law also can apply on base if a driver who has been drinking hits a Japanese national.

“The message is ‘Don’t do it. None for the road, period,’ ” Hawkins said. “If you’ve been drinking, don’t drive — and that’s a simple message that people really need to hear.”

The revisions to Japan’s Road Traffic Law were passed June 20, though most won’t go into effect until at least September.

A spokesman for the National Police Agency, which proposed the changes, said the new drinking and driving penalties must take effect within three months — or by Sept. 19 — but no official date has been set.

Hawkins said a series of high-profile road deaths “drove the Japanese to get much tougher” on drunken driving.

A Jan. 23 editorial in the Japan Times said the deaths of three young children in Fukuoka last August triggered public calls for more punishment.

The children drowned after a Japanese drunken driver rear-ended their parents’ sport utility vehicle on a bridge, sending the SUV plummeting into a bay. The mother and father survived with injuries.

Even an individual who’s sober but lets an intoxicated driver get behind the wheel could face time behind bars under the new law.

For example, a passenger who knows a driver has been drinking could face up to three years in jail and a $4,000 fine. A National Police Agency spokeswoman said it doesn’t matter whether the passenger is a licensed driver, though he or she must be at least 14, the minimum age at which people in Japan can face criminal punishment.

Applying the law, however, may prove difficult. As the Japan Times editorial noted: “Investigators will have to prove that a passenger in a vehicle driven by a drunk driver had prior knowledge that the driver was drunk.”

Still, tougher punishment also is being handed down to those who provide alcohol to someone who later drives drunk. The NPA spokeswoman said this law applies to anyone, not just business owners.

“I think the intent there is to be careful of how you serve people the alcohol,” Hawkins said. “I would not rule out friends providing friends alcohol. I’d just be careful.”

Airmen at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan said they agreed with most of the stricter penalties. “It’s your own stupidity if you drink and drive,” said Tech. Sgt. Justin Johnson, 31. “It’s been briefed half-a-dozen times to have a wingman with you, to be sober.”

Johnson said his only beef was with punishing a person who provides alcohol to somebody who may drink and drive. That person could walk home, for instance, and get into a vehicle there without the friend’s knowledge, he said.

When Airman 1st Class Kelly Parker, 21, also of Misawa, heard that a drunken driver could face up to five years in prison, he said, “that’s a long time,” but thought it was fair.

“You’re putting people’s lives at stake,” he said.

But Parker questions whether the tougher law will be a deterrent. “People will do what they want to do, no matter how tough the law gets,” he said.

Other revisions to Japan’s Road Traffic Law include:

Passengers sitting in the back seat are required to wear seat belts.Elderly drivers — 75 or older — must take a mandatory driving test when renewing their license and place signs in the car to indicate they are an elderly driver.Children are required to wear helmets when riding bicycles.Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this story.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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