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(Dec 11, 2013) The Diet, Japan's parliament, adopted a law in November 2013 that imposes stricter penalties on reckless drivers who cause fatal accidents while under the influence of alcohol or are impaired due to a chronic illness. (Act on Punishment of Acts Inflicting Injury or Death on Other(s) by Driving a Vehicle [in Japanese], Act No. 86 of 2013, House of Representatives website [conduct search].)

Background

Under Japanese law, if a person has health problems that cause seizures or other conditions that may make driving a vehicle difficult, the person might not be issued a driver's license or might have it suspended. (Road Traffic Act, Act No. 105 of 1970, amended by At No. 72 of 2011, art. 90.) In the case of a person with epilepsy, if he or she has not had a seizure for the last two years and if a medical doctor concludes that the person will not have a seizure for a projected specified number of years, the person may obtain a driver's license for that specified period. (Criteria on Eligibility for a Driver's License for Persons with Certain Illnesses, § 2 [in Japanese], Attachment to National Police Agency Circular Tei-Un No. 111 (Aug. 2, 2011).)

In order to obtain or keep a job, or for purposes of quality of life, some persons with such health conditions obtain or keep a driver's license by not reporting their problematic health condition. In April 2011, a person with epilepsy who had been able to keep his driver's license by not reporting his health condition had a seizure while driving, resulting in the car running into a group of elementary school students who were commuting together to their school, killing six of them and injuring others. (Keisatsucho yushikisha kaigi, tenkan to yubyosha no mushinkoku deno unten menkyo shutoku ni aratana bassoku (NPA Expert Committee, New Punishment Against Persons with an Illness Such as Epilepsy Who Obtained a Driver's License Without Reporting the Illness), MIXONLINE (Oct. 6, 2012).)

Another, similar case of a traffic accident involving an epileptic driver, which resulted in the death of six persons, attracted nation-wide attention in 2012. (Gion no jiko 8 nin shibo, untenshu tenkan de tsuin [8 Died im Accident at Gion, Driver Visited Hospital for Epilepsy Treatment], NIHON KEIZAI SHINBUN (Apr. 12, 2012).) In the aftermath of these and other cases of accidents involving epileptic drivers, victims and their families vigorously campaigned for tighter regulation of driver's license eligibility for such persons and for the enactment of new criminal provisions that would apply in similar cases. (MIXONLINE, supra.)

Amendment of Road Traffic Act

Backed by public opinion, the Road Traffic Act was amended in June 2013 to give the Public Safety Committee, which is in charge of driver's licenses, the authority to punish applicants who report false answers to questions such as whether the applicants have certain health problems that might give rise to health conditions that could negatively impact their ability to driving a vehicle. (Road Traffic Act Amendment Act, Act No. 43 of 2013, art. 117-4 [in Japanese], House of Representatives website [conduct search].) In addition, the amendment allows medical doctors who have diagnosed persons who have a driver's license to report the diagnosis to the Public Safety Commission, if the patient is found to have a health condition that causes seizures. (Id. art. 101-6.)

Ministry of Justice Draft Legislation on Dangerous Driving

In draft legislation punishing certain acts of dangerous driving, which also received public opinion support, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) included a provision on the harsh punishment of persons with certain health problems who inflict injury or death on others under certain circumstances. This MOJ legislation was submitted earlier in 2013, during the same Diet session in which the Road Traffic Act was amended. However, deliberation on the draft law was not concluded at that session and was carried over to later sessions. ([Kiken unten hoan] Shinpo seiritsu wa aki ni mochikoshi ([Dangerous Driving Bill] Bill Is Carried over to Autumn Session), MAINICHI NEWSPAPER (June 26, 2013) (on file with author).)

The crime of dangerous driving is currently prescribed in the Penal Code. (Penal Code, Act No. 45 of 1907, as last amended by Act No. 73 of 2011, art. 208-2, Japanese Law Translation website [conduct search].) When the new Act on Punishment of Acts Inflicting Injury or Death of Other(s) by Driving a Vehicle becomes effective, the Penal Code provision will be removed. The relevant provision in the new Act reads as paragraph 2 below:

Article 3

1. A person who drives a vehicle in a condition that may prevent the normal ability to drive due to the influence of alcohol or drugs and who falls into a condition that makes normal driving difficult due to the influence of the alcohol or drugs shall be punished with imprisonment for twelve years or less if the person causes injury other(s), or shall be punished with imprisonment for fifteen years or less if the person causes the death of other(s).

2. A person who drives a vehicle in a condition that may prevent the normal ability to drive due to the influence of illnesses specified in a Cabinet order, who falls into a condition that makes normal driving difficult due to the influence of the illness, and who causes the injury or death of other(s) shall be subject to the same punishments prescribed in the previous paragraph. (Act on Punishment of Acts Inflicting Injury or Death on Other(s) by Driving Vehicles, supra.)

The Minister of Justice explained at the Diet that the same illnesses that restrict a person's eligibility for a driver's license would be considered for inclusion in the Cabinet order specifying the illnesses relevant to the above provision. He also stated that it is the specified conditions caused by the illnesses that are significant, rather than the illnesses in and of themselves. (Minister of Justice Sadakazu Tanigaki statement [in Japanese], Legal Affairs Committee Minutes, House of Representatives, 183rd session, No. 19 (June 19, 2013), House of Representatives website [conduct search to view].) During the same meeting, a Diet member stated that two requirements must be balanced: in order to clarify what acts are punishable, the illnesses must be indicated, but in specifying the illnesses, discrimination against persons who have those illnesses must not be promoted. (Id.)

Opposition to the MOJ Draft Legislation

Patient support groups and medical doctors have expressed opposition to article 3, paragraph 2, of the MOJ draft law. The Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology, the Japan Epilepsy Society, and other five societies demanded its removal. They claimed that there is no medical basis for the allegation that persons with epilepsy and other specified illnesses contribute to more traffic accidents than do persons with other diseases, and therefore the provision would violate the constitutional guarantee of equality under the law. In addition, they argued, the provision would promote prejudice against such illnesses and prevent early treatment of persons suffering from them, because such persons would try to avoid being diagnosed. (The Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology, et al., Written Request Concerning "Act on Punishment of Acts Inflicting Injury or Death on Other(s) by Driving a Vehicle" [in Japanese], The Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology website (Sept. 30, 2013).)

Diet Action and Other Provisions of the New Act

Although they did not change the controversial provision of the MOJ draft law, both Houses of the Diet attached resolutions to the legislation requesting that the government take the opinions of patients' groups and medical professionals into consideration when issuing the Cabinet order specifying the blameworthy illnesses and to take measures to eliminate any possible unfair disadvantages that might accrue to persons suffering from the illnesses so specified. (Legal Affairs Committee, House of Councillors, Attached Resolution to the Act on Punishment of Acts Inflicting Injury or Death on Other(s) by Driving a Vehicle [in Japanese], House of Councillors website (Nov. 19. 2013).)

The new Act also includes a provision that punishes acts of hiding the influence of alcohol or drugs when a driver has caused an accident resulting in the death or injury of another person while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, such as running away until the driver's blood alcohol level has dissipated. (Act on Punishment of Acts Inflicting Injury or Death on Other(s) by Driving a Vehicle, art. 4.) Another provision raises the statutory penalty when unlicensed drivers cause a fatal accident or injury. (Id. art. 6.)

Author: Sayuri Umeda More by this author
Topic: Crime and law enforcement More on this topic
 Driving while intoxicated More on this topic
 Motor vehicles More on this topic
Jurisdiction: Japan More about this jurisdiction

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Last updated: 12/11/2013