Traffic Deaths Fall to All-Time Low in 2002
March 18, 2003

Japan had 8,326 traffic fatalities in 2002 according to figures released by the National Police Agency, the fewest since the present statistics began in 1966 and less than half the peak in 1970. (In Japan, a traffic fatality is defined as a death within 24 hours of an accident as a result of injuries sustained in the accident.) The decrease is largely attributable to the new, more stringent penalties for drunk driving introduced in the Revised Road Traffic Law that went into effect in June 2002. Other factors include an increase in the proportion of people wearing seat belts and the production by automakers of safer cars.

Stiffer Penalties Take Effect
Traffic fatalities actually were on an upward trend during the first half of 2002, defying expectations that a December 2001 law setting the penalty for reckless driving resulting in death at a maximum of 15 years in prison would produce immediate results. In January 2002 there were 643 traffic fatalities, up 3.9% over the same month in 2001, and April also saw a 2.9% increase. The law's introduction appeared to have made no obvious difference.

Things changed, however, with the implementation of the Revised Road Traffic Law in June. There were 42 fewer fatalities in June 2002 than the year before and 93 fewer in July. In the end, the toll in 2002 was down by 421 compared to 2001. Under the revised law, a motorist can be fined as much as ¥500,000 ($4,166 at ¥120 to the dollar) for driving while drunk - five times more than before - and the maximum fine for the lesser charge of driving under the influence of alcohol has increased sixfold to ¥300,000 ($2,500). Many analysts believe that the heavier penalties had the desired effect of curbing drunk driving and reduced the frequency of serious accidents. Moreover, the standard for applying the charge of driving under the influence has been lowered from 0.25 milligrams per liter of air in a breathalyzer test to 0.15 mg per liter, meaning that it could apply to a driver who has drunk only one glass of beer. This seems to be putting positive pressure on drivers as well.

The effect of seat belts cannot be overlooked, either. While 63.4% of drivers were using them in June 1992, a decade later the figure had grown to 86.9%. In addition, automakers have been making great efforts to improve the safety of their vehicles. Both factors have helped reduce the number of deaths, which accounted for 1.05% of all passengers injured in traffic accidents in 1992 but comprised just 0.49% of injuries in 2002.

Despite the general decrease, though, the number of traffic fatalities among people aged 65 and over rose by 128 to a total of 786. This can be traced to an increase in the number of seniors overall, and as Japanese society is expected to continue aging at a fast pace, improved traffic-safety measures aimed at this group are urgently needed.

Making Every Effort
While penalties are being toughened and police are cracking down on offenders, local governments and private companies are also making efforts to prevent traffic accidents. One of the measures being tried out is to use headlights at all times. The first firm to implement this policy was a major delivery company that began a trial with its fleet of 20,000 vehicles in January 2002. The firm experienced 30% fewer accidents that month than the year before, so it made the policy permanent that March. Accidents between March and December were down 20% over the same period the previous year. Employees and observers alike have noted that using headlights in the daytime makes it easier for pedestrians and other vehicles to notice the delivery trucks, and some have also suggested that the policy has raised the safety awareness of the drivers.

Since March 2002 the Nagano Prefectural Police has been conducting a daytime headlight program involving more than 10,000 vehicles operated by participating taxi companies and other firms, and in June Nagasaki Prefecture followed suit with its 600 public vehicles. At present, over 160 municipalities throughout Japan are making similar efforts.

Meanwhile, steps are being taken to reduce the number of accidents at railroad crossings. The East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) is changing the colors of its railroad crossing barriers from black and yellow to red and white stripes. Cars often move into crossings even after the barriers start to come down, and while some drivers knowingly force their way across, many simply do not notice the bars descending. In an effort to prevent cars from breaking the barriers, JR East has introduced the red and white pattern at four crossings to test its effectiveness. The number of broken bars at those intersections dropped by 75%. Drivers have commented that the barriers stand out more than before and that it is easy to tell when they are coming down. Deregulation in the spring of 2002 has allowed railway companies to freely choose the colors they wish to use on barriers, so it seems likely that repainting will become commonplace.

Copyright (c) 2003 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.
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