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NAHA, Okinawa — A glass of beer could cost you more than $2,500 if you choose to get behind a steering wheel after finishing it.

With the holiday season under way, Okinawa police have increased their vigilance on highways in an annual monthlong campaign that started Thursday against driving under the influence of alcohol.

Okinawa is known for having Japan’s highest per capita DUI rate among the nation’s 47 prefectures.

“From January through December last year, a total of 9,360 drivers were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol,” said Seiichi Kuniyoshi, traffic planning officer for the prefectural police.

The total number of arrests is the second highest in the country after Osaka’s 10,195, he said.

“But if the population is considered, per capita ratio on Okinawa is overwhelmingly high,” he added.

Osaka’s population is 8.8 million, while Okinawa is home to 1.3 million people. Police in Tokyo, a city of 11.8 million people, made 9,268 DUI-related arrests, Kuniyoshi said.

The high occurrence of DUI mirrors a high ratio of alcohol-related vehicle crashes, said an official of the General Insurance Association of Japan.

According to statistics released recently by the association, comprising 22 major insurance companies in Japan, alcohol was a factor in 5.05 percent of Okinawa crashes last year, compared to a national average of 1.68 percent.

The data, however, show a steady improvement in recent years.

Alcohol-related accidents in 2001 were 8.44 percent in Okinawa while the national average was 2.81 percent. In 2002, it was 7.67 percent on Okinawa and 2.28 percent for the rest of Japan. In 2003, it was 5.52 percent on Okinawa while the national average was 1.82 percent.

“Our goal is to attain a DUI-free society,” said Yasuo Tanaka, director general of the association’s Okinawa Office. “Although it may be impossible to eliminate all traffic accidents, it should be possible to make DUI close as zero.”

Okinawa police officials attribute the island’s higher DUI rate to its absence of railroad transportation, a lack of awareness that drunken driving is a criminal act, and an Okinawan society that is lenient.

“What we need to do is to change the awareness,” Kuniyoshi said.

Penalties for violating DUI laws, revised in 2001, are sobering.

“For instance,” Kuniyoshi said, “the legal alcohol limit is 0.15 milligrams per liter of breath. If violated, the penalty is one year imprisonment or a maximum of 300,000 yen fine (about $2,500). If driving while intoxicated, the penalty is (a) three-years jail term or 500,000 yen (about $4,200) fine.”

If a drunken driver causes a death, the maximum penalty is 20 years in prison, he added.

“Paying the penalty and of course, the consequent revokement of one’s driving license, could well lead to the loss of a job,” he said. Further, if someone is injured, the mental and economic costs for both victims and the offender can be huge, he said.

“Keep in mind always that drinking and driving is a criminal act,” Kuniyoshi said.

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