November 12, 2013

Brakeless Cyclist Arrested in Japan, Confusion Over Law Remains

Police in Tokyo have arrested a 31 year old man for riding a bicycle without brakes on the rear wheel in violation of a new Road Traffic Act law which was introduced at the beginning of the  year.

At the time the law was introduced Japan's police announced that they intended to prosecute cyclists who repeatedly violate road traffic laws, the key word here being "repeatedly" as most cyclists are merely let off with a warning when police decide to act on an infringement. This marks the first arrest under the new ruling.

Policeman on a bicycle in Tokyo, Japan

Both Japanese and English versions of the article reporting this incident state the cyclist was "arrested after defying repeated requests by police", yet the man told police he "had no idea he would be arrested for riding the brakeless competition bike." So which is it? Is this poor reporting, poor policing, or a feeble attempt by the cyclist to escape punishment? Maybe we'll never know.

Other articles covering the incident state that bicycles must have both front and rear brakes under Japanese law, yet I've been led to believe that a single rear brake is all that is legally required. As it is now illegal to sell brakeless bicycles in Japan, and bicycle stores still sell bicycles with a single coaster brake on the rear wheel isn't it safe to assume that only a single rear brake is required?

If not then this isn't the only Japanese cycling law which is out of step with society. Under Japanese law carrying an adult passenger on a bicycle is illegal but when the law was drafted nobody considered tandem bicycles and thus it is technically illegal to ride a tandem bicycle in the majority of Japanese prefectures, yet they're sold freely in bicycle stores.

Once again confusion about the finer points of the law remains. Each time a new law is introduced, such as the recent law requiring cyclists to cycle on the left hand side of roads without sidewalks, but with pedestrian side lanes, the police have no convenient means for publicising the law therefore it goes mostly unpunished as cyclists argue they were never informed of the new ruling.

Efforts have to be made by the authorities to educate the public about new and existing cycling laws. Children can be taught in schools, but adults are harder to reach. As children learn cycling rules by observing adults they will eventually emulate the mistakes of the previous generation.

It seems to me that before cracking down in cyclists police need to crack down on shoddy reporting which causes confusion among the general public, because as it stands newspapers are the only avenue through which the public learn of new laws. 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, its the only way to ensure that the message reaches the majority of the population. This should be a priority task for our new Bicycle Promotion Ministry if it ever comes to be.

Remember, until they're widely and consistently enforced Japanese cycling "laws" are more like "suggestions" and you'd be better off observing the rule I adhere to daily: Exercise some common sense and ride safely.

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