Around 9:30 PM on June 5th, 2017, Yoshihisa Hagiyama was driving his van on the Tomei Expressway in Kanagawa Prefecture with his wife and 2 daughters. They were on their way home from a vacation.
The drive turned into a nightmare when he realized an angry driver, Kazuho Ishibashi, was in the vehicle behind them.
"I had never seen such rough driving, and I thought it was terrible," the 17-year-old daughter, who had been sitting next to her father in the car, testified in court.
Prosecutors said Ishibashi persistently tailgated the van then cut in front of it and slowed down several times, nearly causing rear-end collisions.
Hagiyama was forced to pull over on the highway and exit his van to talk to Ishibashi. Two minutes later, a truck crashed into the van from behind, killing the couple and injuring the daughters.
Crime against "dangerous driving"
Prosecutors charged Ishibashi, a construction worker, with dangerous driving resulting in death and injury and other charges. They demanded a 23-year prison term.
It was a rare decision by the prosecutors. One reason for it was that Ishibashi did not directly kill the two victims. The criminal penalty for dangerous driving resulting in death and injury was established in 2001. It was a historic change in the country's traffic laws, introducing severe penalties for reckless drivers by raising the maximum prison sentence from five years to 20.
The prosecutors accused Ishibashi of persistent and malicious driving. They said, "The accused had no intention of following the law. This case is among the worst of past road-rage incidents and should be punished severely.”
Ishibashi told the judges he was angry because Hagiyama demanded he move out of the way at a parking lot in a service area. Ishibashi admitted to chasing Hagiyama's van to complain, but said he did not think that stopping the vehicle would lead to an accident.
Ishibashi read out a statement saying, "I am sorry to have caused the couple's deaths and to have hurt their daughters. I will never drive again." His lawyers claimed he was not guilty as his car was parked and the victims were hit by a vehicle other than Ishibashi's.
Judge admits the prosecutor's claim
In the ruling on December 14th, the presiding judge, Shigeyuki Fukasawa, ruled that the defendant's act of obstructing the path of the victim's van four times was linked to their deaths as it caused the fatal collision involving the third vehicle.
The judge also said the defendant's overreaction to Hagiyama's comment was appalling.
Law expert Yasuyuki Takai said it is presumably the first time for a Japanese court to find a person guilty of the charge in that situation, and it's likely to help deter other road-rage incidents.
Many drivers have similar experiences
An online survey by an insurance company in May found that about 70 percent of the respondents had suffered from road rage or other deliberate acts of reckless driving.
Tailgating was most common, as was driving close to other vehicles and headlight flashing.
After the incident, the National Police Agency ordered police across the country to crack down on drivers engaged in tailgating and other types of dangerous driving. In 2018, the number of cases of rough driving doubled compared to the same period a year earlier from 5,759 to 10,873.
The incident attracted attention nationwide, and car supplies stores saw a surge in demand for driving recorders.
Naokatsu Chino, an advisor for a nationwide car-accessories chain, said, "Customers want recording devices so that they can have evidence if such incidents should occur. Even a sticker with the words 'This car has a driving recorder' is considered effective in deterring malicious drivers."
Toshihiro Toritsuka at car-gadgets seller JAF Media Works says he wants to raise awareness that road-rage incidents not only endanger the victims but also the perpetrators. He says, "On the road, people get easily annoyed. Both sides must cool down before the situation escalates."
Fumiko, the mother of victim Yoshihisa Hagiyama, released a statement through her lawyer saying, "I sincerely hope the ruling will help eradicate tailgating and other reckless driving."