Photo/IllutrationA police officer explains tougher penalties for cellphone use to a driver in Shizuoka on Nov. 29. Another police officer holds a sign about the strengthened regulations. (Moe Hirose)

Japan has tripled fines and strengthened other punishments against motorists who use cellphones while driving, a long-growing cause of traffic accidents across the nation.

The stricter regulations took effect on Dec. 1.

The Road Traffic Law prohibits drivers from using their hands to hold mobile phones to talk, send e-mails and other data or play online games. They are also banned from viewing onboard TV screens or car navigation systems for prolonged periods.

However, criticism arose that the penalties for violations were too light.

Now, the fine for an offense committed by the driver of a regular car has been raised from 6,000 yen ($55) to 18,000 yen.

If the use of a phone causes a “danger in traffic,” law enforcement authorities will treat the case as a criminal offense.

In addition, phone-using drivers will receive three demerit points, compared with the previous one point added.

Motorists who cause a danger in traffic previously gained two demerit points. Now, the act will lead to six points, meaning that their driver’s licenses will be suspended outright.

Drivers can use mobile devices if their vehicles are at a complete stop at traffic signals or in traffic jams. However, the National Police Agency urges motorists to turn off their smartphones and other mobile devices or switch them to driving mode before they start traveling.

If these devices are needed for emergencies, the NPA asks drivers to pull their cars over to a safe place first.

The family of a 9-year-old boy who was struck and killed by a truck in Ichinomiya, Aichi Prefecture, in October 2016 and local authorities had lobbied the government for harsher penalties.

The truck driver was playing the Pokemon Go smartphone game at the time of the accident.

Last year, the overall number of traffic accidents caused by the use of smartphones and other mobile devices totaled 2,790, about double the number 10 years earlier, according to the NPA.

Of the 2,790 cases, 42 caused fatalities and 176 led to serious injuries.

By the end of October this year, the number of mobile device-related accidents had reached 2,237, including 30 fatal cases and 143 cases causing serious injuries.

Police detected about 840,000 cases of illegal mobile device use among drivers last year, according to agency data.

The comparable figure for the first 10 months in 2019 was about 640,000, accounting for about 13 percent of overall traffic violations.