Japan’s repeat drunk drivers stay on the road as medics hesitate to suspend their licenses


Traffic accidents involving alcoholic drivers have long been a problem.

A 2014 revision of the Road Traffic Act allowed authorities to suspend or revoke a driver’s license if the driver is an alcoholic, even if he had not caused an accident. But there have been few cases in which the driver’s license has actually been suspended or revoked for this reason, in part due to the reluctance of doctors to file the necessary complaint.

Among those charged with drunk driving in Fukuoka Prefecture from 2015 to the end of July, 131 people were required to be tested for alcoholism. Of these, 43 were diagnosed with alcoholism.

According to a senior police official in Fukuoka Prefecture, alcoholics continue to represent a certain proportion of those arrested while driving, and there is an urgent need for the government to take action to prevent tragic accidents.

In one case, a 55-year-old man from Kitakyushu City crashed into a mini-vehicle two years ago after drinking about 10 cups of shōchū liquor distilled that morning.

Four years before the accident, he had been diagnosed with alcohol and had traveled back and forth to the hospital four times.

“I didn’t expect to drive under the influence of alcohol,” said the man.

That morning, he thought he was “done drinking for now”, drove a van in his pajamas and crashed into a small car that stopped at a red light.

After graduating from college, the man joined a company listed on the First Section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. He worked extremely well in the business, but was forced to quit after starting to drink too much while earning and dining with clients.

“I emptied a bottle of whiskey every night,” he said.

He was treated for alcoholism but could not stop drinking. It was then that he caused the car accident. He was caught red-handed, suspected of impaired driving and received a suspended sentence. He lost his new job and went bankrupt.

“I should never have gotten a driver’s license,” he said.

Now, riddled with regret, he is being treated in an institution that takes care of people recovering from alcoholism.

The revised road traffic law states that doctors who diagnose a patient as an alcoholic can file a request for revocation or suspension of the patient’s driving license with the public security commission of each prefecture.

The Japanese Medical Association has also issued guidelines on the procedure, but Fukuoka Prefecture police say doctors only do this in a few cases per year in the prefecture.

Why? Susumu Higuchi, director of the Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and alcoholism expert, said many doctors are first of all unaware that such a procedure exists.

Even though they know it, they are also reluctant to use it as they are unsure of the impact it would have on patients’ lives as well as on their history of arrests and traffic accidents, a he declared.

Takefumi Yuzuriha, director of the Hizen Psychiatric Center in Saga Prefecture, stressed that doctors should be careful before revoking a person’s driver’s license from a human rights perspective, noting that many patients have need cars to get around.

Nonetheless, Higuchi said that the doctor’s decision to request such a procedure is a way to reduce social risks if the patient is very likely to drive while intoxicated, even if they are in educational programs to prevent drinking and driving. intoxicated as part of his treatment.

“For the system to work, doctors need to have access to the cases and to the data that allows them to determine whether it is better to revoke the driver’s license,” he said.

“Alcoholic locks” offer a practical solution for transport companies and drivers

A device that prevents a car from starting when it detects a blood alcohol level above a specified level in the driver’s breath – called an “immobilizer” – has attracted attention as a measure to prevent driving under the hood. drunk.

As alcohol ignition interlock devices are more prevalent in Western countries, some Japanese companies are starting to introduce them and the central government is also exploring ways to promote them.

According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, some countries require intoxicated violators to install immobilizers, while others, such as the United States, Canada and Finland, authorize offenders whose license has been suspended to drive only vehicles equipped with such devices.

“We will take overseas examples into account as a benchmark when considering promoting the devices in Japan,” a ministry official said.

Fukuoka-based transport company Fukuoka Soko Co. introduced the device to its truck fleet in 2014 after a driver from its partner company drank alcohol while on duty.

“Even a single drinking and driving accident can instantly destroy confidence in the company,” says Tatsuya Kitajima, director and general manager of the company’s ground transportation division.

At first, employees were intrigued by the fact that it takes up to two minutes each time to start the truck.

“As we continued to use the system, the (drivers) gradually started to feel that it was the daily routine,” Kitajima said.

The system has also become a strong symbol of the company’s commitment to never drunk driving and helps gain customer trust, he added.

Tokai Denshi Inc. in Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture, started selling alcohol ignition interlock devices in 2009. So far, the company has sold around 2,700 devices at around 150,000 each.

Most of its customers are transportation companies, but some buy the device for family members who are alcoholics, the company said.

This section presents topics and issues from the Kyushu region covered by the Nishinippon Shimbun, Kyushu’s largest daily. The original articles were published on September 8.

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