[FOUNTAIN]Traffic Accidents, Not Crimes

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[FOUNTAIN]Traffic Accidents, Not Crimes

Under Section 108 of the Road Traffic Act, a driver held responsible in a car accident that damages property but not another person is punishable by up to two years in prison or up to 5 million won ($3,840) in fines.

But fines are levied only if the accident is reported to the police.

Last year, the police issued citations in 212,000 such cases, or 23 percent of the 916,000 cases in which insurance payments were made. In other words, more than 700,000 accidents that should have resulted in fines were not reported to law enforcement authorities. Local auto insurance companies believe that far more cases were never reported to them.

The punishment is nearly meaningless; law enforcement authorities simply send a notice levying a fine. If the driver at fault reaches a settlement with the person whose property he damaged, or if he is covered by auto insurance and the damage is less than 2 million won, the police simply book him and draw up a report on the accident.

If the damage amounts to 2 million won or more, the police have to report the case to the public prosecutor's office, but the prosecutors' indictment is limited under the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Settlement of Traffic Accidents.

To handle such minor crimes, the police spend six to 12 hours questioning witnesses, taking photographs of the accident scene and evidence and interrogating the driver and the victim.

A driver who causes an accident often blocks the road, trying to keep the scene intact until the police arrive, to make sure he is not unfairly or wrongfully accused. Persons who try to rescind an accident report after learning that they would have to go through hours of interrogations often get into trouble with the police. The police often insist that what has been reported has to be dealt with.

Some people take advantage of Section 108 of the Road Traffic Act. Damage caused by even a minor auto accident involving an imported luxury car can easily exceed 2 million won, and victims who may be driving more modest vehicles often threaten to call the police in an attempt to extort more settlement money through a threat of making the driver face criminal charges. In some cases, angry victims call the police so that demerits can be added to the offender's driving record.

Recently, the police held a public hearing on changing the definition of car accidents involving only property damage. I expected that everyone would agree to the proposal. But a panelist representing the prosecution argued, "Insured or not, a crime is a crime." The panelist insisted on keeping Section 108 intact. Even the criminal act does not consider accidental damage of someone else's property a crime, regardless of how much damage is involved. Why should drivers be treated as criminals even when they are insured to cover the damage to the victim's property?

Considering that laws in many foreign countries do not regard such accidents as a crime, why not consider abolishing Section 108 of the Road Traffic Act?

The writer is the JoongAng Ilbo's special correspondent for transportation affairs.

by Eum Sung-jick

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