In a one-day campaign to announce a new, stiffer traffic law against drivers using mobile phones, Okinawa police Monday was to send out additional law enforcement officers to the island’s major highways, an official of the Okinawa prefectural police said.

The new law imposes a fine up to 50,000 yen (about $470) to people who use a mobile phone while driving, whether they’re talking or sending or reading e-mails.

Under the previous law, drivers who use cellular phones while driving could face up to three months imprisonment, or a maximum 50,000 yen fine, but only when the violation caused an accident, said Hisao Kinjo, safety planning officer at the Traffic Planning Division of the Okinawa prefecture police.

“But the revised law can assess you a fine by merely operating a cell phone even if you do not cause any accident,” he said.

On Okinawa, 24 cell phone-related traffic accidents occurred last year, he said.

“In one case, a driver who was checking incoming mail crashed into a utility pole on the roadside,” he said. In another case, a driver’s attempt to answer a phone sent a vehicle into a sugarcane field.

“When people are engaging in a phone conversation, their minds go elsewhere,” Kinjo said. “Even though they see an object — for instance, a car coming out ahead of them — their mind cannot respond properly even though it is within their vision. In other words, they are just blankly looking ahead.

“Drivers must pull their cars off the road when they need to answer the phone,” he said.

Police urge all drivers to turn off their cell phones or switch to drive mode before taking the wheel.

The revised law also imposes harsher punishments on motorists who refuse to take a breathalyzer test. The fine was raised from 50,000 yen (about $470) to 300,000 yen (about $2,830), police officials said.

The revision was in response to a rise in the number of drivers who refuse to take the test to avoid heavy fines, increased in 2002, on drinking and driving, according to a National Police Agency statement.

“The revision was … to raise fines against those who refuse to take breathalyzer tests to ensure that breathalyzer tests are conducted,” the agency stated.

Also starting Monday, bosozoku, or drag racers, can be arrested on the spot for dangerous driving. Before the revision, police could arrest them only when they could prove that the reckless acts imposed danger to others. The new law enables police to arrest them on the scene of dangerous acts without proving danger or nuisance to public.

Additionally, a fine for driving a vehicle without an adequate muffler was raised to 50,000 yen (about $470) from 20,000 yen (about $190), the agency said.

Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

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