Yes even here in Japan, the concept of being "Scared Straight" has taken hold, but in a rather different way. In Japan we aim to scare our children into cycling safely by exposing them to a series of simulated accidents between bicycles, pedestrians trucks and cars at events hosted by local Junior Highschool, and I was lucky enough to be invited to view one for the first time over the weekend.
Upon entering school grounds I was immediately given a handout, the first half of which listed a series of high profile accidents in which cyclists have injured and even killed pedestrians, including an incident in 2013 where the mother of a junior ighschool boy was forced to pay almost $1 million in compensation to the family of the victim injured by her son. This individual accident has become the boogieman with which the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, schools, lawyers and insurance salesmen have been using to scare everyone in the community into purchasing cycling insurance. Not a single piece of bicycle safety literature, nor poster goes out without making a mention to this tragic high profile case. Oddly no cases of motor vehicles killing cyclists or pedestrians was mentioned in the literature, nor was there a table listing fatalities caused by cyclists against fatalities caused by motor vehicles which would show cycling and cyclists are much safer than motorists. No, this event was about bicycle safety which in no way involves cars right?
I took some deep breaths and reminded myself I was here to learn, not pass judgement, well at least not until the spectacle was over.
Proceedings began with a speech by a representative of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department who basically went over the material in the handout which aside from scary stories about dangerous cyclists killing pedestrians included some road accident statistics and a quick rundown of what the police department consider the 5 most important rules of cycling:
- Always cycle on the road
- Always cycle on the left hand side of the road
- When cycling on the sidewalk pedestrians have right of way (this contradicts the 1st rule)
- Obey all the rules (which means this list is more than 5 rules)
- Wear a helmet
By the end of his talk the crowd was getting restless, they were here to see the action, bring on the gladiators and let the show begin.
Presenters used this opening as an opportunity to chastise the children for laughing, driving home that cycling safety was a serious matter and that they should think of themselves or their family in a similar situation. Not so funny now is it? But for most of the children in attendance this was akin to the circus, 100% pure entertainment.
Following this two cyclists holding umbrellas collided. Entertaining, but hardly educational my cynical self noted. But after this the presenters demonstrated the difference in stopping difference between braking with two hands rather than just one which they emphasised is even greater in wet conditions. Seeing stopping distance for real, not as simply some lines and measurements on paper is much easier for people to relate to I admitted, thinking maybe this event had some merit after all.
Keeping myself in check I watched the remainder of the show, but was almost unable to contain my frustration at one point. The example consisted of a cyclist riding along the sidewalk in a straight line, crossing a pedestrian crossing with a green light before being struck by a left turning vehicle. What was the cyclist doing wrong in this case the students were asked. "The cyclist was on the sidewalk", said one despite sidewalk cycling being condoned in the police departments coveted 5 rules. "The cyclist should have slowed down before entering the crossing", said another. "The cyclist should have paid more attention" said a third. "The cyclist should get off and push their bicycle over the crossing" observed another incorrectly.
Adding insult to injury the presenters explained to the students (none of whom are old enough to drive themselves) the concept of a blind spot, and that at the point when the cyclist entered the intersection the driver was physically unable to see the cyclist and hence the accident was unavoidable. Unavoidable? WTF? I almost popped a seam.
So by the end of the event my opinion of Scared Straight cycling safety campaigns was not changed. Speaking with students afterwards revealed they were all impressed by he stunts, yet few had leaned any lessons of about bicycle safety. It was as I suspected, a circus, but even going into this with a preconceived opinion I was in no way prepared for how the the actions of the motorist in each of the simulated accidents was in no way questioned. The speed at which young minds were moulded to consider the motor vehicle blameless, or at the very least totally completely ignored as a factor contributing to each accident scenario was astounding. It certainly was educational for me to attend, but for all the wrong reasons.