September 30, 2013

Cyclists Reminded of New Left Side Rule

Just when I thought I understood Japanese cycling laws, I discover something new.

A new law will take effect on December 1st, 2013 which will ban cycling against the flow of traffic in an effort to reduce the number of bicycle related accidents police warned on Friday.

But hold on a second. Aren't bicycles already required by law to use the left lane? Well yes, but it seems there has been a legal loophole which the new law aims to close.

Woman cycles in bicycle lane in Tokyo, Japan
In Japan cyclists can cycle in both directions on sidewalks wider than 3m which are marked as shared use. When cycling on the road bicycles are required by law to keep to the left. So why this new regulation when a law already exists?

Many roads in Japan don't have space for sidewalks, but have a small area on each side of the road marked for pedestrian use by a single white stripe of paint. These side lanes are rarely wide enough for pedestrians to walk two abreast.  Under normal conditions pedestrians walk on the roads and when a vehicle approaches they drift, single file, into the side lane until it passes by then disperse to fill all the available road space again.

This revision to the Road Traffic Act pertains to those roads with side lanes. Until now there has been no law preventing cyclists from riding against the flow traffic in these narrow side lanes. Under the revised law bicycles must use the left side of the road at all times. Finally, some much needed consistency.

Cyclists who do not keep to the left-hand side of the road may face up to 30 days in prison or a fine of ¥20,000, police said. The key word in that sentence being "may", because as we all know cycling laws in Japan are rarely, if ever, enforced by the police.

According to National Police Agency data, 3,956 cyclists nationwide were given warnings in 2011, including 17 that reportedly led to fines, meaning that 3,939 cyclists broke the law, but were let off by the police. Is it any wonder cycling laws are largely ignored?

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