Misawa delays licenses for young drivers
November 10, 2004
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Airman 1st Class Thomas Henley and Airman Basic Raymond Altamirano said they expected to pass their multiple-choice driving tests here Monday, but they’ll have to wait at least a day before receiving their U.S. Forces Japan driver’s license, a pocket-size, stamped document that allows them to drive legally in Japan.
Henley, 22, and Altamirano, 23, fall into the age group base officials have identified as “high-risk” drivers: military personnel under age 26.
So they’ll receive their licenses from a supervisor in their unit who is to talk to them about driving safely in Japan.
All other drivers still can receive their license immediately from security forces personnel after completing a “local conditions” briefing and passing a test, base officials said.
The new requirement, which affects all Misawa military personnel applying for a driver’s license, is part of Brig. Gen. Bill Rew’s recent policy on high-risk driver training. Rew is the Misawa installation and 35th Fighter Wing commander.
¶ Makes it mandatory for all military personnel, family members and Defense Department civilians found responsible for a traffic accident or moving violation to complete and pass a computer-based driving improvement course within seven working days; failure to do so can result in suspension of driving privileges for six months.
¶ Singles out military personnel ages 25 and younger for the new licensing requirement because they’re more likely to be involved in traffic accidents, said Lt. Col. Franz Plescha, the Wing’s safety chief.
“We did an analysis on all major and minor accidents we’ve had” during the past several years, including two fatal wrecks and two that caused serious injuries earlier this year, he said Monday. Base statistics, as well as national and Air Force-wide ones, show “primarily the younger drivers are the ones getting into accidents.”
Of Misawa drivers involved in four major off-base accidents, he said, “three of them were 19.”
In April, a Japanese citizen died in a car crash involving a 19-year-old sailor assigned to the base. In May, a 19-year-old airman and a local driver collided, killing the local driver. In June, a local woman was seriously injured in an accident involving another airman; in July, a Japanese woman on a motorcycle collided head-on with the vehicle of a servicemember, who was trying to pass a car. The woman suffered serious injuries, including a broken leg and pelvis.
Reckless driving was found to be the primary cause of these accidents, but age also was a factor, Plescha said.
“A 19-year-old doesn’t cause accidents. A 19-year-old has a tendency to speed more, which causes accidents,” he said.
Speeding and inexperienced drivers can be a deadly mix on Japan’s roads, where the conditions are much different from those in the States, Plescha noted. Lanes are narrower, speed limits are lower, more bicyclists and pedestrians use the roads and even stop signs look different, he said.
Involving unit supervisors in their young troops’ licensing process will enable them to pass on their experiences and expectations about driving safety, Plescha said.
Unit commanders have leeway when carrying out the policy; they can hand out the license the day after the servicemember passes the test or later, and it’s up to them what to say to the servicemember, he said.
“This is not intended to be a stick in the eye for everybody,” Plescha said. “For those who are driving safely, we just ask that they understand where it is that we’re coming from. It’s their safety that we have in mind also.”
Altamirano and Henley, the two young airmen who completed their driving tests Monday, said they weren’t sure when they would receive their licenses but it wasn’t an inconvenience since they had yet to buy cars.
Altamirano said base officials seem to have good reasons for implementing the policy, but it makes the licensing process “a little more tedious. I’m not sure what it’s really going to solve, having us wait longer,” he said. “I don’t mind it, but I don’t understand it.” He thought for a moment and added: “I think it’s a good thing that they’re taking time out to address the problem.”
Airman 1st Class Billy Stafford, 22, and newly assigned to Misawa’s 35th Maintenance Squadron, said he didn’t mind the new policy but seemed a bit nervous about the prospect of driving in Japan.
“I think I’ll just have to get used to driving on the other side of the road,” he said.