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West Japan police see DUI cases shift to home drinkers, earlier times amid pandemic

A Wakayama Prefectural Police drinking and driving prevention poster.

WAKAYAMA -- The problem of drinking and driving in this western Japanese prefecture is shifting under the coronavirus pandemic, as restaurants and bars shorten their business hours and more people choose to imbibe at home.

    Until this year, Wakayama Prefectural Police tended to catch more people driving under the influence the later at night it got. But more DUI cases have been detected between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. this year, and over the "Golden Week" holiday period in late April and early May, police say, they caught more people who had been drinking at home than out on the town. This raises a question: If people are drinking in the comfort of their own abodes, then why are they driving?

    The prefectural police compared the number of DUI cases logged at what times of day in January through May from 2019 to 2021. There were six cases in the 7-9 p.m. slot in those months of 2019, nine in 2020, and 15 in 2021. However, when it came to the 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. slot, there were 23 cases in 2019, 16 in 2020, and nine in 2021.

    Furthermore, from April 29 to May 5 this year the most common drinking spot for those caught driving while drunk was "at home," at six cases, while only three drinkers had been imbibing at a restaurant or bar. "A convenience store" and "on the riverside" had one case each. Also, those caught between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. made up nearly half of all drinking and driving cases for the period.

    Wakayama Prefecture had been calling on residents to avoid non-essential outings until June 6, and until May 31 had been requesting restaurants and bars to shorten their business hours and the hours they served alcohol as a virus transmission prevention measure.

    The prefectural police's traffic division believes that "drinking patterns have changed because of the pandemic." They added, "Previously, one common drinking and driving pattern was to get behind the wheel after leaving the second establishment of the evening and finding it hard to hire a substitute driving service to get them home. It now seems we're catching more people earlier in the day."

    Responding to this shift, police are now widening the focus of their DUI checks beyond nightlife districts to anywhere people are likely to toss back a few, including parks and riverside green spaces.

    In 2017, 17.1% of all traffic deaths in Wakayama Prefecture were DUI-related, the highest ratio in Japan. In response, in April 2019 the prefecture passed an ordinance to attack the roots of the problem, and accidents involving intoxicated drivers began to decline. Since a single-person accident in the prefectural town of Kozagawa in December 2019, there have been no local alcohol-related traffic fatalities. However, DUI accidents have not been eliminated.

    Under the ordinance, if a person is caught driving while drunk, they are required to make efforts to undergo a medical examination to determine if they are dealing with alcoholism.

    According to police, there have been cases of home drinkers getting caught driving under the influence because they have run out of drinks and have gone out to buy more, partially explaining the continued DUI cases despite the rising prevalence of imbibing at home during the pandemic. This suggests diagnosing and treating alcoholism is very important.

    Traffic division officer Kazuya Doi stated, "There are those who are not very aware that drinking and driving is a crime, but if they cause an accident, it's very tough for the victims, their own family, and for themselves. If you drink at home, stay at home. I'd like to see families tackle this issue as a unit."

    (Japanese original by Satoshi Yamaguchi, Wakayama Bureau)

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