Tougher penalties needed to curb deadly drivers
Horrific accidents caused by drunk driving, unlicensed driving and other reckless driving seem to occur unceasingly. Planned harsher punishment of such practices must serve to prevent accidents.
The government has submitted a bill to the Diet to toughen penalties in cases of reckless driving. The bill is designed to take elements relating to reckless driving from the Penal Code, such as definitions of dangerous driving resulting in death or injury, and include them in a new law.
The heart of the bill is the creation of new provisions on what may be called the offense of "quasi-dangerous driving."
One requirement for applying the charge of dangerous driving resulting in death or injury is a "state in which it is difficult for a person to conduct normal driving." For example, the subject of the offense must be a person who caused an accident while driving a vehicle at uncontrollable speeds or in a state of extreme intoxication from alcoholic beverages or drugs. The maximum punishment is 20 years in prison.
However, it is quite difficult to accurately determine the exact driving speed or precise degree of intoxication at the time of an accident. For this reason, there have been many cases in which investigation authorities had to build their cases on suspicion of "negligent" rather than "dangerous" driving resulting in deaths or injuries. The maximum penalty for this offense is seven years in prison.
A great gap
The gap between the punishments for dangerous driving resulting in death or injury and for negligent driving resulting in death or injury is too large.
In consideration of the feelings of bereaved families, who have demanded tougher punishments, it is understandable that the government intends to create regulations enabling a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
The major problem with the new rules is ambiguity. If a driver was "in a state in which significant obstacles to normal driving might occur," the person can be accused of the offense. However, the standards for defining the situations in which "significant obstacles to normal driving might occur" are not clear.
The government needs to make the standards for applying the new rules easy for everyone to understand through Diet deliberations.
Under the bill, accidents caused by the effects of medical conditions are designated as dangerous driving acts. The bill targets illnesses and symptoms that may disrupt consciousness, such as epilepsy, in response to a 2011 accident in Kanuma, Tochigi Prefecture, in which the driver of a crane truck suffered an epileptic seizure behind the wheel and killed six primary school students.
Epilepsy and other patients' organizations strongly oppose the bill, saying it will invite discrimination against people with certain conditions. It is important for the government to carefully explain to such groups the intent of the bill, which is to prevent accidents.
Patients are also asked to voluntarily refrain from driving if they know they may suffer seizures.
The bill also includes a provision to put a heavier penalty on driving without a license. This was prompted by an accident a year ago in Kameoka, Kyoto Prefecture, in which 10 people including primary school students were injured or killed by a car driven by an unlicensed driver.
The teenage boy arrested over this incident was found to have repeatedly driven a car without a license. Investigative authorities thus did not apply the dangerous driving charge, due to the judgment that "his driving technique was not underdeveloped."
Yet even in the latest bill, the government did not include driving without a license as it judged it is insufficient to establish dangerous driving charges. Having no driving license cannot, by itself, prove the element of "difficulty of normal driving," according to the government.
There must be many people who are frustrated with such an explanation. How to deal with reckless unlicensed drivers is a subject that demands further discussion.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 25, 2013)