Cycling may seem like a leisurely and healthy way to commute to work or get around town, but a combination of narrow streets, a lack of clearly enforced road rules, and occasionally reckless riders have pushed the Japanese government to institute a new range of severe penalties for cyclists who flaunt traffic laws.
The National Police Agency recently told the The Japan Times that 8,141 collisions were reported in 2013, 93 of which led to fatalities. The total number of collisions has dropped since 2003, when 10,443 incidents were reported, but only 61 of them were fatal.
This alarming increase in bike-related deaths has prompted Japanese lawmakers to take action. On Tuesday, it voted to enact more severe penalties for cyclists who violate traffic laws such as failing to give the right of way to pedestrians, biking too quickly on sidewalks, not having proper brakes, or using mobile phones while riding. Mandatory three-hour safety courses will be held for cyclists who are ticketed more than twice in the span of three years. Fines of up to ¥50,000 will be given to repeat offenders. Police told Japan Times that hundreds of cyclists are guilty of violations every year.
Reaction to the new rules has been mixed, with comments on the Japan Times story including the following:
“This is all very well, but the plods hardly ever enforce the laws they have at their disposal now. I doubt too many errant cyclists have too much to worry about.”
“Cyclists seem to move about in an unlegislated area, being victims and perpetrators at the same time. I have been harassed many times by motorists, because I was riding on the left side of the street with my bike, as required by traffic regulations… On the other hand walking with a small child on a sidewalk can be a real nightmare.”
“The largest group of cycle rule violations are the police themselves. They never wear helmets, rarely have usable lights or reflectors, and they ride on sidewalks. If the law enforcers can’t obey the law, how can they expect the average rider to?”
A February 2013 Japan Times article noted that police officers in Tokyo ticketed 437 cyclists in the previous year for running red lights, up from the mere 55 who committed such violations in 2008. Later that year, the popular Tokyo By Bike blog highlighted the arrest of a 31-year-old cyclist who didn’t have a proper brake on his rear wheel. The author of post also noted that contradictory accounts of the incident appeared in several different articles, with the police saying they had charged the perpetrator after multiple warnings, and the cyclist saying that he had no idea about the rule. The blogger ended his post with the following, all too fitting, paragraph:
“Ideally the government needs to commit to educating the public about how to ride safely and legally, possibly through an extensive campaign of television advertisements. It’s the only way to ensure that the message reaches the majority of the population.”
The new penalties will come into effect in June, but it will remain to be seen whether they will be enough of a deterrent to make a difference.
Image, which depicts a bicycling situation that may or may not be 100% legal: m-louis/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)