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Japan’s tougher drinking, driving laws take effect

By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 19, 2007

Starting Wednesday, Japan’s tough new traffic laws go into effect, making jail time of up to three years a possible punishment for driving after drinking as little as one beer.

The new penalties could be enforced immediately, military officials say, as Japanese police look to crack down on errant drivers during the country’s annual fall traffic-safety campaign. The campaign will be conducted in every Japan prefecture, starting Friday and ending Sept. 30, according to U.S. Forces Japan officials.

Expect “a period of increased and stepped-up enforcement to highlight driving safety,” said James Brophy, USFJ force protection officer.

In these traffic safety campaigns, Japanese police officers usually stand up additional vehicle checkpoints during hours when drinking and driving infractions typically increase, Brophy said.

American drivers could be stopped, Brophy said, noting it’s “a myth and very bad myth,” that Japanese police won’t pull over Americans because of potential language barriers.

Enforcement during the campaign can be in the form of a warning, an administrative ticket or more serious criminal action, depending on the offense, said Dale Sonnenberg, USFJ deputy staff judge advocate.

“It’s their way of historically highlighting to folks the existence of these laws and the fact they should be obeyed,” he said. And those laws, as applied to alcohol-related offenses, will be the toughest they’ve ever been for this year’s campaign.

The revised traffic law applies on base, as well, Sonnenberg said, but jurisdiction in the case of serious alcohol-related offenses would be determined on a case-by-case basis. However, .03 is the baseline for driving under the influence of alcohol on base, like it is off base, Sonnenberg said. Each service component in Japan sets minimum sanctions for DUIs on base, he said. “If you have a drink or two at dinner, don’t be driving on base,” Sonnenberg said.

Japan’s Diet approved changes in June to the road-traffic law. Those go into effect Wednesday, imposing longer prison sentences and higher fines on intoxicated drivers.

Also, for the first time, the law spells out specific punishment for people who provide alcohol and vehicles to drunken drivers, and those who ride with a driver who they know has been drinking, including jail time or fines.

The tougher penalties arose from the public outcry following the deaths of three young children in Fukuoka in August. The children drowned after a Japanese municipal worker who had been drinking rear-ended their parents’ sport utility vehicle on a bridge, sending the SUV plummeting into a bay. The mother and father survived with injuries.

In Japan, driving while intoxicated (DWI) applies to anyone with a blood-alcohol-content of .08 or greater. Maximum jail time for DWI under the revised law is five years or a fine not to exceed about $8,800.

Driving Under the Influence (DUI), for a BAC of .03 to .07999, calls for a maximum prison sentence of three years or a fine of about $4,400 or less.

But Brophy and Sonnenberg stressed that the BAC thresholds are just legal categories. “It’s really the impairment that defines what the specific charge will be,” Brophy said.

“Just because you’re a .05 doesn’t mean you’re safe from the more serious offense,” Sonnenberg explained. “If you are weaving all over the road, if you were consistently stopping 10 feet longer than the stop line or something of that nature, that could all be used to convince the court that [alcohol] had influenced your ability to drive.”

Japanese police typically use the wand — a device which one blows in — to measure blood-alcohol content, Brophy said.

Refusing this test, under the revised traffic laws, can result in maximum confinement of three months or a fine of up to about $4,400, he noted.

“If they offer it and you refuse, you don’t avoid getting convicted of drunk driving,” Sonnenberg said. “They will use other evidence to obtain a conviction if one is warranted.” For any of the alcohol-related offenses, jail time would be imprisonment with forced labor. “You would go to Japanese prison versus” a local jail, Sonnenberg said.

Brophy said USFJ has passed word down to the service components in Japan to inform personnel of the revised traffic laws. “Our expectation is that our U.S. Forces Japan members will be responsible and never drink and drive on base, but certainly not off base where they have the potential to cause harm to our Japanese neighbors,” he said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this story.


New traffic laws at a glance

Some of the changes to the revised Japanese road traffic laws that go into effect Wednesday are:

  • Driving while intoxicated (DWI) — Blood alcohol content of .08 or greater: Confinement not exceeding five years or a fine not exceeding about $8,800, depending on the current yen rate. (Under the old law, maximum jail time was three years or a fine of about $4,400)
  • Driving under the influence (DUI) — BAC of .03 to .07999: Confinement not exceeding three years or fine not exceeding about $4,400. (Under the old law, maximum jail time was one year or a fine of not more than about $2,650)
  • Providing an intoxicated person with a vehicle — The same penalties for DWI and DUI apply.
  • Providing a person with alcohol who subsequently gets a DUI or DWI: DWI — Maximum jail time of 3 years or a fine of about $4,400 or less. DUI — Maximum jail time of two years or a fine not exceeding about $2,650.
  • Riding as a passenger in a vehicle operated by a person intoxicated: DWI — Maximum jail time of 3 years or a fine of about $4,400 or less. DUI — Maximum jail time of two years or a fine not exceeding about $2,650.
  • Rejected BAC breath test — Maximum jail time of three months or a fine not exceeding about $4,400.
  • Hit and run — Maximum jail time 10 years or fine of about $8,800 or less.

Other revisions that go into effect Wednesday include allowing parking meters or ticket machines to be set up at on-street time-restricted parking.

Source: U.S. Forces Japan and Japan National Police Agency


You don’t have to be drinking to get into trouble

One of the new provisions of Japan’s revised traffic law spells out specific punishment for people who provide alcohol and vehicles to drunken drivers, and those who ride with a driver who they know has been drinking.

U.S. Forces Japan officials said in the past that one could have been found guilty of these acts, but it wasn’t well known to the population and the law wasn’t specific in those areas.

Now, for example, “providing a vehicle to someone you know to be under the influence of alcohol is a separate crime, punished to the same extent as a person who drives while intoxicated,” said Dale Sonnenberg, USFJ deputy staff judge advocate.

Harsh punishment also applies to those found to have provided alcohol to a person who gets caught drinking and driving or gets into a vehicle with an intoxicated driver.

To what level the Japanese police will enforce those new laws and what level of proof the courts will need to prove such offenses were committed is still to be determined, said James Brophy, USFJ force protection officer. “My sense is that it will be an offense that’s clearly indicated,” Brophy said. For example, “if you and someone else leave a bar, and you know the individual has had four drinks and is clearly incapable of operating a vehicle and you get in the vehicle and allow him to drive.”

— Jennifer H. Svan