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Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010


Bicycles and traffic safety

Although first-time visitors to Tokyo are impressed by the convenient subway system and the eco-friendly bicycles, longer-term residents have experienced fighting their way through carelessly parked bicycles or nearly being knocked over by a bicycle suddenly coming up behind them on the sidewalk.

Even so, few think of bicycles as a mortal threat. However, in 2009 there were 156,373 incidents in Japan involving bicycles, or 21.2 percent of all traffic accidents. More than 80 percent of those bicycle-related accidents involved cars, but 2,934 were with pedestrians, up from 801 10 years earlier.

In response, police have become stricter with cyclists and courts have been awarding large damages to victims. In one example from 2005, a 37-year-old man on a bicycle ran a red light and struck a 55-year-old woman crossing the street. She hit her head on the pavement and died several days later. Unlike most cyclists, he happened to have insurance through a credit card that paid the award of over ¥54 million to her survivors.

Behind such a tragedy are a cheerful obliviousness to traffic rules and safety on the part of cyclists, and narrow roads often lacking even an adequate sidewalk. In an attempt to improve the latter, in January 2008 the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and the National Police Agency designated 98 model districts throughout the nation for the construction of special bicycle lanes by March this year. As was announced Sept. 16, though, only 50 percent of the lanes separated by a barrier from the rest of the road have been completed.

One fenced-off lane in Tokyo, achieved by converting an eight-lane road into six lanes, has been well-received, but the neighborhood association is opposed to extending it as this would block access to shops and make deliveries more difficult. In other areas, bicycle lanes created by painting one lane green with no physical barrier have been confusing to drivers and disliked by cyclists fearful at riding next to heavy traffic.

Such cases show the difficulty of improving the infrastructure, but at the very least authorities could do a better job of educating Japan's cyclists on the responsible use of often impossibly crowded roads.

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