The issue of drivers who suffer from epilepsy is back in the spotlight after a woman was killed and four other persons seriously injured when a car hit them on the sidewalk and then plowed into a clothing store in front of JR Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo last Sunday night.
Police have learned that the driver of the car, Shoichiro Kaneko, 53, who is a doctor, has suffered from epilepsy for 20 years and has been receiving medication for the condition from a hospital once a month for the past nine years.
Kaneko has been charged with negligent driving resulting in death. He was quoted by police as saying that he had no memory of the incident as he had dozed off at the wheel at the time when he drove his car into a Zara store on the first floor of a building in Ikebukuro. He said he was not drunk, nor on drugs, but was just exhausted after driving for about seven hours that day. A urine test showed no sign of any drugs in his system, police said.
Five men and women pedestrians ranging in age from their 20s to 70s were injured. Of the five, Toshiko Ebata, 41, suffered a severe cranial fracture and died in hospital early Monday morning, police said.
According to police, Kaneko drove out of an underground car park in front of Ikebukuro Station just before the accident. Witnesses said that he stopped his car for a moment, before then accelerating approximately 50 meters forward onto the sidewalk and then into the front of the shop.
Police raided Kaneko’s home and found his hospital card and some medication for epilepsy, Fuji TV reported. Kaneko’s doctor told police that he needed to take his medicine once a day, otherwise he could have seizures. He said that Kaneko’s driving ability would not be affected as long as he took the medicine. However, Kaneko has not said whether he took the medicine on the day of the accident.
Under a new law that went into effect in May 2014, anyone who suffers from epilepsy and wants a driver’s license must submit a letter from a doctor affirming that they are OK to drive. They must also reveal if they have any conditions or ailments that could impair their driving ability.
Police said that Kaneko apparently did not state that he had epilepsy when he last renewed his driver’s license in 2013, Fuji reported.
Under the new law that went into effect last year, causing death while driving drunk or as a result of a chronic condition, such as epilepsy and hypoglycemia, is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Furthermore, anyone who hides a medical condition that may affect their driving when they apply for a license faces a penalty of one year in jail and a fine of 300,000 yen.
Medical professionals who are aware that their patients suffering from epilepsy or schizophrenia are driving, are required to report it to public safety authorities.
The revision to the law came as the result of a series of deadly traffic accidents. Among them was an incident in Tochigi in 2011 in which six children were killed by a crane truck, and another in Kyoto in 2012 in which eight people were killed by a minivan. In both cases, the drivers had concealed their epilepsy when applying for their driving licenses and had seizures at the wheel.
Although the maximum imprisonment period for causing deaths due to reckless driving was 20 years, a loophole in the law meant that the severest penalty only applied to "incidents occurring under normal driving conditions." Because of this, most cases were labeled as involuntary manslaughter where the maximum sentence was only seven years.
The new law changed the way courts deal with cases and sentencing. It expanded on existing regulations by stating that under the influence of alcohol, drugs and "special illnesses," the normal ability to safely operate a vehicle is severely impeded and can lead to fatal casualties. The term "special illnesses" refers to conditions such as epilepsy and schizophrenia.© Japan Today