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Sunday, Feb. 11, 2007

MEDIA MIX

Gore's charge unlikely to skewer Japan's traffic plans


Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore was in Japan a few weeks ago promoting "An Inconvenient Truth," the documentary film version of his traveling power-point presentation on the dangers of global warming. He made the rounds of the news shows at the time, but due to the extra time required to edit entertainment programs, his variety show appearances didn't air until this week, thus coinciding with the release of that dire report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which stated definitively that the Earth's atmosphere is heating up and humans are responsible.

Where Gore didn't show up was in the company of government leaders. He's no longer vice president and therefore protocol doesn't require local politicians to invite him in for a chat, but when Gore gave his environmental lecture as a guest on shows like Nihon TV's "The World's Most Useful Classroom" and NHK's English-study show "Eigo de Shaberanaito," he was treated less as an activist than as a movie star plugging his film. So why didn't Shinzo Abe invite him to the prime minister's residence? He invited Will Smith.

Maybe it was the subject. Gore talks specifically about the effects of human-generated carbon dioxide on the world's climate, a danger that the Bush administration maintains is mostly theoretical. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party may not have wanted to seem as if it endorsed his cause since America is still Japan's most valuable ally.

Or maybe it didn't want to be seen endorsing Gore's cause for its own reasons. The main cause of global warming, according to "An Inconvenient Truth," is the world's dependence on fossil fuels. In Japan, energy is conserved mainly because of economic necessity, and there is no concerted effort being made to cut down on the use of automobiles. In fact, the government goes out of its way to promote driving.

In a recent editorial in Aera, motor journalist Kazuhiko Mitsumoto reported that the National Police Agency has announced it will form a panel to discuss changing the speed limit. Mitsumoto says that the NPA wants to increase speed limits for private automobiles on both expressways and regular roads. The reason is that the government wants to use the "special road tax" attached to gasoline sales and vehicle inspections for general purposes. Right now, the tax can only be used for building new roads, but since the government has curtailed public works projects it isn't building new roads. Carmakers and car owners would prefer the tax be eliminated, but the government wants this money for the general account and feels it has to placate motorists in the form of higher speed limits.

Engines burn more fuel at higher speeds, so the changes could lead to greater gasoline consumption and, thus, more emissions. Higher speeds can also result in more accidents and traffic fatalities, a possibility that is especially disturbing in light of a recent court case in Saitama. A company driver is being prosecuted for hitting and killing four nursery-school children on a residential street in Kawaguchi last September. The charge is professional negligence resulting in death, which carries a relatively light penalty. Prosecutors have said it is difficult to charge him with anything more serious because he seems to have been driving within the speed limit, which is 60 kph on all regular roads unless otherwise indicated.

Mitsumoto points out that overall the number of traffic deaths is decreasing year by year, but the number of pedestrians and bicyclists killed by cars is going up. That's because automobiles themselves are becoming safer and more secure and therefore drivers and passengers are more likely to survive accidents.

The obvious solution would be to promote safer driving and enforce traffic laws, but the NPA is moving to push bicycles off roads and onto sidewalks. Right now, the Road Traffic Law says that "all two-wheel vehicles" are restricted to streets, but the reality is that many people already ride their bicycles on the sidewalk, including the police. As Alice Gordenker recently mentioned in her Japan Times "So, what the heck is that?" column, since 1970 bicycles have been allowed on some designated sidewalks. However, the designation was meant to be a temporary measure until special lanes could be built for bicycles. In the meantime, more people have turned to bicycles for everyday use, including the elderly, office ladies in high heels and tight skirts, and housewives with two kids on board. So this spring the NPA is sponsoring a Diet bill that will allow and, under certain vague conditions, compel bicyclists to ride on sidewalks, where the speed limit is 5 kph. This is seen by bicycle advocates as a preliminary to banning bicycles from roads altogether.

The only reason for this revision, according to an editorial in the Asahi Shimbun, is to make roads "sacred spaces for cars." It certainly isn't to make pedestrians happy. A report on last Wednesday's edition of NHK's "Closeup Gendai" said that bicycle-related accidents have increased seven-fold in the last decade and people are angry. They want bicycles off the sidewalks. An expert interviewed on the program said that such a problem doesn't exist in other developed countries, because there bicycles are restricted to streets, where their safety is promoted and enforced. He added that "bicycles are important" in any local solution to "environmental issues."

People who ride bicycles responsibly for commuting and recreational purposes may smell a conspiracy, but the problem is a lack of imagination. Like cigarettes, the private automobile is seen to have a certain right to exist, so the police and the government try to create an environment where its use causes as little social friction as possible. It doesn't occur to them that maybe it would be better to discourage its use in the first place.

When Gore was on "Eigo de Shabera-naito" he was interviewed by tarento Patrick Harlan, who said that he drove to see "An Inconvenient Truth," but after hearing Gore's presentation he pushed his car home. It's a joke the National Police Agency probably wouldn't get.



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