February 06, 2009

Of Bicycle Laws in Japan and other Mythical Beasts

Quite often, as the resident cycling nutjob, I'm asked about bicycle laws in Japan. More often than not this question comes from a foreigner, because as far as Japanese people are concerned there are no bicycle laws in Japan, beyond "Don't have an accident" and unfortunately even that rule is not often adhered to.

So here is a concise list of the most important bicycle laws in Japan:

  • Exercise some common sense, and ride safely.

There you go, short and to the point.

OK, the truth of the matter is that a whole complicated mess of cycling laws do in fact exist, but they are loosely enforced. So loosely that almost the entire cycling population is completely confused as to what is a law, what is common sense and what is pure myth or urban legend. For example:

Riding a bicycle under the influence of alcohol could earn you up to five years imprisonment or a fine of up to 1 million Yen. Unless you cause a serious accident and injure someone other than yourself the usual police response is to turn a blind eye to the merely tipsy cyclist. If the cyclist is is over the limit on the policeman's internal 'tipsy-o-meter' then they'll be trundled to the koban till they sober up, then sent on their way after a stern talking to. Problem being that each policeman's internal 'tipsy-o-meters' is calibrated differently.

Riding at night without a headlamp, using an umbrella, cell phone or iPod won't get you jailed but could cost you up to 50,000 Yen. The only rule I've seen enforced with at least some consistency is riding at night without a headlamp, but rather than a 50,000 Yen fine it usually results in a short exchange in which the police officer informs you that you shouldn't ride at night without a light, then you both go your separate ways. Riding while talking on the phone may, to a lesser degree, get you the same treatment.

As for umbrellas, and iPods, once again, unless you cause an accident (injuring someone other than yourself) no policeman is going to tell you to stop using a perfectly good umbrella and ride till you're soaked nor can they be bothered catching up with you to ask you to remove your earphones. (They have to catch up because calling to a person listening to their iPod doesn't yield any response.)

Carrying a passenger (over the age of 6) or riding in tandem with another bicycle promises to fetch you a fine of up to 20,000 Yen. Futarinori (the practice of riding two to a bike) is common amongst high school students, couples, and friends. Its part of a Japanese teenage boys induction into manhood to cycle the streets with his girlfriend on the back with her arms around him. What policeman is going to put an end to such a simple teenage pleasure? Just don't cause an accident.

Failing to stop at a red light or stop sign, or cycling dangerously (for example riding with broken brakes) is another offense punishable by up to 3 months imprisonment or a fine up to 50,000 Yen. On most roads in Japan the traffic lights are timed to trigger on regular intervals, traffic or not, they'll change every few minutes. This results in a lot of stopping and starting which quickly wears you down. As a result I slow, check for traffic and use my judgement to determine if I'll stop or continue. I do this safely, every day, in front of a police box twice on the way to work and twice on the way home and have not once been stopped. Although I just read that in 2008 40% of cyclist fatalities were caused by cyclists going through red lights or stop signs without stopping, so I'll exercise some caution.

I'm not sure of the exact legal wording, but "cycling dangerously" is a rather subjective notion. I'll take my hands off the bars to get something from a jersey pocket, is that dangerous? No, but I wouldn't like to see my daughter try it.

So by now you see the pattern. Just like when you were a child playing dangerously with a friend, its all fun and games until someone gets hurt. You'll jump Billy on your skateboard 20 times, your mother will warn you not to 20 times, but on the 21st time when you land on Billy's ankle the full weight of your mothers fury comes down upon you.

Cycling in Japan is the same, "Obey this rule we never enforce", says the policeman, until someone gets hurt then his tone changes to "Why don't you accompany me to the station."

Therefore in essence all the rules for bicycles can be boiled down to "exercise some common sense and ride safely".

What about riding on the road or sidewalks in Japan? I don't even want to try and explain the complexities, myth and legend surrounding that question so I'll let you know the rules that work for me:

  • Yes, you can ride on the roads in Japan
  • Yes, you can ride on the sidewalks in Japan
  • Exercise some common sense and ride safely

The more formal definition of the rules is:

  • Yes, you can ride on the roads in Japan, except in places where you can't
  • Yes, you can ride on the sidewalks in Japan, except in places where you can't
  • (No mention of common sense or safety, as they have nothing to do with bicycle laws in Japan)

I like my rules better.

Around the beginning of each school year there is a 2 week road safety blitz. Police at every intersection directing traffic, and a crossing guard (or two, sometimes even three) at every crossing, waving flags, blowing whistles and generally getting in the way of everyone. Its during these waves of madness that the police may pull you up for riding on the road (which is legal, let us stress again) and tell you to ride on the sidewalk even though you already cycled past 5 police and didn't receive a warning. After riding 50m or so down the sidewalk jump out on the road again and don't be surprised if the next 5 police officers let you cruise on by.

Surprisingly it wasn't until June 2008 that helmet laws were introduced in Japan. Currently it is compulsory for all children under 13 to wear a helmet while cycling, even if they are a passenger on an adults bicycle. Despite this you still see few children wearing helmets and even fewer police officers enforcing the law. Adults have no legal requirement to wear a helmet.

Personally I wear a helmet every day on my commute (unless I'm taking the train, then I leave it at home) and on weekend rides, but if I'm taking the mama-chari to the supermarket I'll leave the helmet behind. On the road, wear a helmet, going shopping, give it a miss. My daughters, both under 13 wear a helmets whenever they're on the bike, its common sense.

In the event of an accident, when the enforcement of the law actually kicks in Japan attributes blame to the larger party. In a car against bicycle bout, the driver of the car is automatically at fault even if the cyclist was riding the wrong way down a one way street holding their umbrella while listening to their iPod. When a cyclist injures a pedestrian the cyclist is at fault, and the person deemed to be at fault covers the medical expenses of the other party.

So there you have it. While Japan does have a complex set of cycling laws, they are poorly understood and only really enforced in the event of an accident. I'm sure all of you exercise common sense and ride safely within the law, but while in Japan, forget the law, its incomprehensible, and just exercise common sense and ride safely. Its worked for me.

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