Cyclists in Japan: Two strikes and you're out!

Byron Kidd
Under a legal revision to take effect in Japan on June 1 (2015) cyclists who violate the Road Traffic Act or cause accidents may have to undergo retraining. The Cabinet decided on Tuesday to approve the amendment to the road traffic act after an apparent rise in accidents involving cyclists resulting in serious injury and death.

Lawmakers believe the amendment will make roads and sidewalks safer by handing out harsher penalties including on the spot fines and the unusual practise of forcing cyclists charged with two traffic violations within a period of three years to attend a three hour retraining course, the contents of which has yet to be announced.

The National Police Agency say their figures indicate that hundreds of cyclists would meet this criteria each year. They indicate that under the new amendment police officers who witness a traffic violation may stop and deliver a warning to cyclists and if the individual fails to obey a ticket will be issued.

The NPA said that of 10,434 bicycle related accidents in 2003 61 were fatal. In 2013 there was a significant drop in incidents which stood at 8,141 but deaths rose to 93 and it is this that prompted the changes they announced on Tuesday.

Move along nothing to see here. Cycle on as usual, absolutely nothing is about to change.

These announcements are made again and again to no effect other than an initial short lived  burst in police enthusiasm.

Police officers in Japan have always been reluctant to uniformly enforce cycling laws, choosing to do so only after an accident has occurred, or in cases where a cyclist is clearly being an extremely dangerous menace.  Tuesdays announcement made that clear when an NPA official said that cyclists will be penalised for causing an accident while talking on a mobile phone.  The key words in that phrase are "causing an accident". Cycle while looking a your mobile as much as you like, just put it away when an officer goes out of his way to "warn" you and don't cause an accident. In effect its the status quo, very little, if anything changes with this legal amendment.

Besides this obvious fact I have a number of issues with the statement issued on Tuesday, not the least of which is the official belief that harsher penalties will make roads safer. The only thing that will make Japan's roads safer is well planned cycling infrastructure, removing cyclists from the sidewalks and separating them physically from motor vehicles. Harsher penalties will simply reduce cyclist numbers resulting in a larger inactive section of the public developing health problems and putting an even larger strain on the public health system, there I said it.

Speaking of harsher penalties, two offences in 3 years and a cyclist is forced to attend a there hour retraining course? Two motoring offences in three years and the worst you face is a fine. I find it hard to believe police claims that "hundreds of cyclists would meet this criteria each year" and unless police get serious about enforcing cycling laws there will not be enough demand to keep the retraining courses open. Alternatively if police did actually begin penalising every single offence there would be an 18 month waiting list to attend retraining!

Semantically speaking its impossible to send cyclists to retraining courses anyway as they've never been trained in the first place and by not enforcing cycling laws for decades police have handed responsibility for public safety to the public who have developed their own unwritten code around cycling which accepts sidewalk cycling and riding while holding an umbrella.

But please ignore my my concerns, just as these amendments to the Road Traffic Act will be ignored in a mere couple of days time.

Move along, nothing to see here.

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