The Yomiuri Shimbun December 2, 2013
Stronger penalties against dangerous driving must help deter road tragedies
A new law—the law on penalties for injury or death inflicted by motor vehicle operators—has been enacted to make punishments stiffer against such reckless, serious driving offenses as drunk driving.
The law, which will take effect in May 2014, should serve as a turning point in reducing the number of victims in traffic accidents caused by dangerous driving.
The enactment of the law means the revamping of the judicial system regarding dangerous driving. Stipulations in the Penal Code regarding “penalties against dangerous driving resulting in injury or death” have been separated in the new law and the sphere of application has been expanded significantly.
Under the Penal Code, a maximum of 20 years’ imprisonment for injury or death due to dangerous driving, such as under the influence of alcohol or drugs, was handed down only when it could be substantiated that the driver was “in a state in which the ability to safely operate a vehicle is seriously impeded” at the time of an accident.
Judging whether a driver’s ability was “seriously impeded” was extremely difficult for law-enforcement authorities, and dangerous driving cases under the Penal Code were strictly limited to offenses when the driver was totally inebriated.
This resulted in drivers—regardless of the grave accidents they caused—facing the lesser charge of “negligence resulting in injury or death,” the maximum penalty for which is seven years in prison.
Many victims and bereaved families understandably criticized the law as far too lenient.
The new law will make it possible to expand the definition of dangerous driving when an accident is caused by a person behind the wheel whose “ability to drive normally is impeded.” Driving offenses in this category are subject to prison sentences up to 15 years.
The creation of a penalty falling between seven and 20 years’ imprisonment can be called a step forward.
Stop hit-and-run deceptions
The Justice Ministry believes the new stipulations can be applied to an accident caused by a person driving who is slightly drunk. It is important to ensure the new law is publicized widely to deter dangerous driving.
A new punishment of up to 12 years in prison has been created under the law in an effort to stop drivers from fleeing the scene of an accident and turning themselves into police later when indications of drunkenness have worn off. Allowing such hit-and-run drunk drivers to turn themselves in later after sobering up would deprive the new law of the effectiveness of the tougher penalties. Police must clamp down on such offenses.
Also characteristic of the new law is that drivers with “certain ailments” are now subject to penalties for dangerous driving resulting in injury or death.
This stipulation was inserted in the new law after the driver of a crane truck suffered epileptic seizures in Tochigi Prefecture in 2011, killing six children.
A list of specific ailments subject to the punishment is expected to be worked out by government ordinance. In compiling the list, sufficient consideration must be paid to patients’ groups and others who fear prejudices toward certain conditions might be aggravated because of the planned ordinance.
The law also includes heavier penalties against accidents caused by anyone driving without a license.
In 2012, a boy driving a minivan killed or injured 10 people in Kameoka, Kyoto Prefecture. It was later learned that the boy had frequently driven without a license.
In this case, the prosecution failed to apply charges of dangerous driving resulting in injury or death because the boy could not be considered “lacking in driving skills.”
Public criticism subsequently mounted against the prosecution for failing to punish him severely in spite of his driving without a license.
Even under the new law, however, cases similar to the one in Kameoka cannot be covered by the penalty against dangerous driving resulting in injury or death unless a driver is drunk or high on drugs.
Even after the implementation of the new law, there should be further discussions about what penalties are considered adequate for driving without a license.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 1, 2013)