Is this teaching our children cycling safety?

Byron Kidd
"Scared Straight" is a concept developed in the United States in the 1970's as a measure to deter juvenile crime by forcing "at risk" youth to visit prisons where they partake in tours, learn about harsh prison life directly from inmates and receive counselling. Often the youth are placed in in-your-face confrontational situations with inmates with the aim of literally scaring them out of a life of crime. But decades of research have revealed that such programs are not only ineffective but may also harm youth, and actually increase recidivism rates among participants. A report presented to US Congress in 1997 evaluated over 500 crime prevention methods and placed Scared Straight programs in the "what does not work" category. Despite this evidence such programs are still in use around the world today.

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.

I've always had a negative view of the Scared Straight cycling safety programs based on my own experience as a child in which if I saw stuntmen simulating bicycle accidents as school in the morning I'd be at the park with my friends doing the very same in the afternoon, because when you're 12 stuntmen are cool and bicycle safety is a drag.  But I was determined to attend this event with an open mind, leaving all my preconceptions behind I set out to be educated.

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:

  1. Always cycle on the road 
  2. Always cycle on the left hand side of the road
  3. When cycling on the sidewalk pedestrians have right of way (this contradicts the 1st rule)
  4. Obey all the rules (which means this list is more than 5 rules)
  5. Wear a helmet

When the officer stressed to this group of 12 to 15 year olds that they should cycle on the road I wanted to call out from the back of the crowd "Do you really believe our roads are safe enough for that?" But simply rolled my eyes and held my tongue. During his talk in which he noted that there had been a drastic decrease in traffic deaths the officer almost dislocated his shoulder patting himself on the back, but I wanted to ask if creative book keeping had not done more to reduce the numbers as victims of traffic deaths who expire more than 24 hours after an accident aren't recorded as road deaths. But I was not there to judge.

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.

When the car travelling at 40km/h hit a stationary bicycle with a dummy in the child seat it made a frighteningly loud sound and sent the dummy spinning through the air. This bought giggles from the children and gasps from the parents gathered. Many shocked parents averted their eyes, one mother even decided at this point it was all too much for her and went home. Maybe there is something in this I thought as the adult motorists in the crowd really do have no idea the damage a vehicle travelling at what many consider low speed it does them good to see what could be the consequences of their actions behind the wheel.

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.

A later demonstration involved 4 cyclists each doing something considered dangerous. One cycling with headphones, one cycling on the wrong side of the road, the two others I don't remember. As the cyclists collided with the rider coming in the wrong direction the entire group was struck by a car from behind. Students were asked to identify the 4 things the cyclists were doing wrong. I wanted to identify the fifth, that the driver of the car was not paying due attention to the environment around them and should be driving more safely in the presence of cyclists and pedestrians, but this was a bicycle safety event I reminded myself while biting my tongue.

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.

It was by this point in the training I knew the brainwashing was complete, there were two parties involved in the accident yet by now the students could only see the wrong doing of the cyclist despite the elephant in the room, or in this case the 4000 pound car in the crosswalk. The victory for motorists was complete.

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.

At no point was it discussed if the motorist could have taken extra precautions to avoid an accident before entering the intersection, the driver was absolved of all blame because the cyclist was doing everything wrong .. cycling on the sidewalk, which the police condone, and crossing an intersection on a green light.  The concept of strict liability in which the larger heavier road user is responsible for the safety of the lighter more venerable ones was not mentioned at all. The motorist was a victim of poor car design resulting in a blind spot, and struck the cyclist as it was the cyclist who was not taking due care. I wanted to scream!

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.

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