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Saturday, Oct. 2, 2004

JAPAN LITE

Drive into the sea, then put up guardrail


On my planet, the United States, used car salesmen have a classic line for selling a car with low mileage: "This car was driven by a little old lady who only used it to drive to the grocery store." In Japan, if I ever get rid of my lightweight pickup truck, the salesman will say, "This truck was driven by a lady who lived on a small island and only used it to drive to the bar." And he'd be right. I am not implying that I drive intoxicated -- I only drive my truck to the bar. I always walk home.

Although the distance from my house to San-chan's Bar & Restaurant is only 1 km, and I don't have to worry about oncoming traffic (since the chance that two of us on the island would be driving at the same time is practically nil), the narrow road, with mountain on one side and sea on the other, leaves no room for error. If my truck ran off the road, no one would notice until low tide.

Sections of this road have no guard rail. This is simply because no one has driven off the road there yet. The system has always been that as soon as someone drives their vehicle or bicycle off the road and into the sea, a guardrail goes up in that spot. Most islanders seem to be perfectly comfortable with this system, and those who are not walk.

Besides not having oncoming traffic, we don't have traffic at all. The other day I was having breakfast at San-chan's when a local "o-jii-chan" came by on his scooter. He brought the scooter to a stop in the middle of the road, turned off the ignition right there and came in for a cup of coffee. After he finished his coffee, there was an ensuing scuffle because the old man wanted to pay for his coffee but the owner insisted it was on the house. The case was finally resolved when the owner physically put the coffee money back into the old man's baggy pants pocket. The old man went back into the middle of the road, started up his scooter and tootled home. By then, 30 minutes had passed -- but not one car.

So why the Transportation Safety Commission bothered to bring its current safety campaign to our small island, where 80 percent of the population doesn't even drive, is beyond me. But our island's one road was lined in bright yellow banners with red letters that said, "Let's use child safety seats!"

The child safety seat campaign is designed to encourage more parents to put children under 6 into the seats for their own safety. So far, the Japanese have been slow to acquiesce. And it's true, of the possible five children on the island who would fit into child safety seats, none of their parents use the seats, because none of them have a car. Wouldn't it be easier, not to mention cheaper, to just go to the houses of people who have children, bow politely and hand them a flyer?

There are more opportune times to run campaigns, such as the summertime, when tourists come and traffic increases. Tourists could definitely use some pointers on island driving etiquette. Last year an announcement came over the island's address system asking the owner of a certain license plate number to move his car. What surprised me was not that the tourist had parked in the wrong place -- even islanders do that -- but that he had parked his car, locked it and taken the keys with him. Islanders would never do this. If he hadn't, someone could have moved his car for him.

I noticed today that the Transportation Safety Commission has moved on to their next campaign. And this time they put posters in the ferry terminal, where they could be sure that all the people who don't drive will see it. This poster said, "Let's all drive inspected cars!"

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