OKINAWA, Japan --
Driving on Okinawa is a privilege that not all service members are able to enjoy, and driving on Okinawa is much different than driving in the U.S. in many ways. However, all status of forces personnel and their families must understand the proper actions to take if involved in an automobile accident.
Being involved in an automobile accident with a member of the Okinawa community can damage the way service members stationed here are viewed, so it is important for service members to know what they need to do, according to Sgt. Matthew P. Nelson, a military policeman with the Accident Investigation Section of the Provost Marshal’s Office, Headquarters and Service Battalion, Marine Corps Base Camp Butler, Marine Corps Installations Pacific.
“After getting in an accident, the first thing you need to do is safely and immediately pull over to the side of the road and notify the proper authorities,” said Nelson. “Proper authorities are military police and the Okinawa Prefectural Police. If the accident is with another service member, status of forces agreement personnel or a member of the Okinawa community, the military police need to be notified.”
After the police arrive on the scene, those involved in the accident will be asked a series of questions.
“The first question asked when a call comes in is if there are any injuries,” said Nelson. “If there is an injury, we will then ensure an ambulance is on the way. After we determine if there are any injuries, we will proceed to gather information regarding the who, what, when and where of the accident.”
Military police are not the only officials who are able to investigate the scene of an accident off base.
“When there is a car wreck the military police and our interpreter from the Accident Investigation Section will go to the scene to conduct an investigation with the Japanese police,” said Ken Yakabi, a liaison specialist with the Okinawa Prefectural Police. “Japanese police will interview both drivers to find out what happened and why. They will also take pictures of the accident, measure skid marks and evaluate the damage to the vehicles.”
If a member of the Okinawa community is involved in the wreck, the Japanese police will need to question the service member or status of forces agreement personnel.
“If a service member hits a pedestrian, then the Japanese police will need to conduct an interview at a later time,” said Yakabi. “We coordinate with the police and the service member’s chain of command to set up the interview. The fines a service member can face is determined (based on) the extent of the damage from the wreck or how badly the victim is injured.”
Whenever there is an injury due to a wreck on Okinawa, it is considered a crime by the Japanese police.
“If a local community member sustains an injury in an accident, then it is a case of injury through negligent driving and our office makes sure the service member or SOFA member know their rights,” said Lance Cpl. Shawn T. Ponterio, a legal services specialist with the Staff Judge Advocates Office, Headquarters and Service Battalion, Marine Corps Base Camp Butler, Marine Corps Installations Pacific. “It is about going through the process of answering questions for the Japanese police.”
Legal rights on Okinawa in the case of car accidents are similar to rights one would have in the U.S. For example, you do have the right to remain silent, but exercising these rights on Okinawa can be viewed as being uncooperative and make further questioning difficult for the individual.
With matters involving the Japanese police, it is important to try your best to be as cooperative as possible, added Ponterio.
“Your cooperation goes a long way and can impact any decision the police might make. PMO will generally notify us about what happens,” said Ponterio. “We cannot tell someone how they should handle any questions that come up, but we make sure they know what their rights are when they speak to the Japanese police.”
According to Nelson, the island is divided into different jurisdictions.
“If you are in a wreck, as long as you are able to contact a base, even if it is in the wrong jurisdiction, military police will respond,” Nelson said. “If you call the wrong jurisdiction, the process is only delayed a few minutes.”
The worst thing you can do is try and cover up the accident by leaving the scene, according to Nelson.
Some consequences include fines, license revocation or suspension, vehicles could be towed, and service members could face non-judicial punishment, said Nelson.
The most important thing to remember if in an accident is to immediately call the proper authorities and inform them about the situation.
“We need to be on the scene to do a detailed report,” said Nelson. “Do not get in a wreck and try to cover it up by fleeing the scene. Notify the authorities as soon as the wreck happens.”
Phone numbers and procedures to call on and off base are located on the reverse side of every SOFA license. For additional information call 645-7441 or 098-970-7441.
Remember you are an ambassador.
If you are in an accident remember these procedures:
Safely and immediately pull over to the side of the road
Contact Military Police at 098-970-7441
Contact the local police by dialing 110
Remain on the scene for questioning