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Japanese Couple Make Big Case Against Drunk Driving

Times Staff Writer

The last sound Ikumi Inoue recalls hearing was one of her daughters crying in fear. But by the time the pregnant mother crawled out of her crushed car and turned around to rescue her children, the back seat had exploded in flames.

Miraculously, Inoue survived the 1999 traffic accident that claimed the lives of daughters Kanako, 3, and Chikako, 1. It took half a dozen operations to save Inoue’s husband, Yasutaka, who was pulled from the car with his back on fire.

The following spring, Keiichi Taniwaki, the truck driver who rear-ended the family’s car on a Tokyo freeway, was found guilty of professional negligence. Taniwaki, who had downed a can of Japanese liquor known as shochu and half a bottle of whiskey before the accident, was sentenced to just four years in prison, one year less than the maximum.

The Inoues began a crusade to get drunk drivers off the road, collecting 374,000 signatures on a petition to toughen Japan’s penalties. On Nov. 28, 2001, the anniversary of the accident, the Diet, or parliament, passed a law imposing a maximum prison term of 15 years for the crime of dangerous driving resulting in death. In June the following year, the government also stiffened the penalties for drunk driving, raising the maximum fine to $4,200.

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And last week, a Tokyo District Court judge awarded the Inoues a record $2.1 million in a civil suit they filed against the truck driver, 59, and his employer, the Kochi Tsuun trucking company. The defendants were ordered to make the payment in annual installments on the anniversary of the daughters’ deaths.

“We were so relieved,” said Ikumi, 34, who, along with Yasutaka, 53, was interviewed at home in Chiba, an hour’s train ride from Tokyo. “We thought judges didn’t have blood in their bodies that they could be so cold to us. This time, the judge was so warmhearted.”

Officials at Kochi Tsuun declined to comment on the court ruling.

By speaking out about their tragedy and pressing their case in the courts, the Inoues have turned drunk driving into a public-safety issue in Japan, following a path blazed by Cindi Lamb and Candace Lightner, the Americans who started Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, in the early 1980s.

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Drunk driving is far less prevalent in Japan than in the United States, where more than 17,000 people were killed in alcohol-related traffic accidents last year.

Japan’s population, which is nearly half that of the United States, is crammed into a mountainous archipelago smaller than California. Most people live in big cities, where they depend on subways and trains for transportation. Owning and operating an automobile is expensive.

But as the Inoues discovered, there was little legal ammunition to keep drunk drivers off the highways.

Lawsuits are few in Japan, a country that has shied away from fighting its battles in the courtroom.

However, attorneys predict that the Inoues’ case, which was widely reported in the Japanese media, will encourage other victims to follow suit.

In last week’s decision, Judge Yoshinori Kawabe said he granted the Inoues such a large award partly because they had suffered such a horrible loss.

He added that they had “devoted their lives to eliminating a recurrence of a similar accident, despite the enormous shock of witnessing their children’s death.”

Makoto Matsumoto, an Osaka attorney, said it is uncommon for a Japanese judge to consider a person’s grief or dedication to social issues. The Inoue case will have a potent deterrent effect, he believes, because it not only broadens the standard for determining compensation in a drunk driving case but also holds the employer responsible for the driver’s behavior.

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“This is a very, very unusual and very significant case,” said the attorney, who represents a group of 100 Japanese families who have suffered injuries or deaths as a result of traffic accidents.

The toll from drunk driving has already started coming down. According to the National Police Agency’s latest report on traffic safety, there were 997 fatal accidents caused by drunk drivers in Japan last year, down from 1,191 the previous year, a 16.3% drop.

The Inoues hope their days in court are over, though the defendants have two weeks to appeal the ruling.

The couple have never spoken directly to Taniwaki, who sent the family a letter of apology after he was chided by the judge. They hope the truck driver will visit their home after he is out of prison.

In a corner of the family’s tiny living room, framed pictures of Chikako and Kanako sit on a table surrounded by bouquets of flowers, incense and piles of their favorite toys.

There is a stack of photo albums and videos chronicling the girls’ short lives. In the crowded room, it is hard to separate the memorial from the toys and clothes belonging to the couple’s other children, Noriko, 3, who was born a few months after the accident, and her brother, Susumu, who is 1.

“We want [Taniwaki] to come here and meet our daughters here at our house and to apologize to them before doing anything else,” Ikumi said.

“We want him to know what kind of children they were.”

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