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Bicyclists, Hang Up That Phone. Japan’s Traffic Laws Just Got Tougher

Under the new regulations, bicyclists can no longer use smartphones while riding, but may still use umbrellas. Screencap from YouTube user XXX.

Under the new regulations, bicyclists can no longer use smartphones while riding, but may still be able to use umbrellas. Screencap from YouTube user Bill Adler.

In response to an increase in bicycle-related accidents, newly revised traffic laws went into effect across Japan on June 1, 2015. Bicyclists caught violating them will be required to attend a traffic safety course or pay a fine.

Out of the nearly 110,000 traffic accidents reported in Japan each year, about 20% of all accidents involve bicyclists. The annual number of fatal accidents involving bicycles but not cars and trucks rose from 51 in 2004 to 82 in 2014, according to an OECD report.

The newly revised laws targeting bicyclists are intended to curb dangerous behaviour, which includes riding through stop signs, ignoring traffic signals, obstructing or failing to yield to pedestrians, and riding a bicycle while intoxicated or using a smartphone or other mobile device.

Compared to some Western countries, bicyclists in Japan have long been allowed to generally behave as they please when riding in traffic or on the sidewalk, with little complaint from pedestrians or motorists.

In Japan it is not uncommon to see a bicyclist holding an umbrella while smoking a cigarette and making a telephone call as they ride into oncoming traffic. Under the new laws, smartphone use by cyclists is specifically called out and prohibited, while umbrellas are ignored. However the intent of the regulations is to dissuade distracted cycling, so bicycling with an umbrella may soon be a thing of the past in Japan.

Recalcitrant cyclists are a serious social issue because cycling is so widespread. Unlike in Western countries where commuting by bicycling is just starting to catch on as a social trend, in Japan everyone from high school students to office workers use bicycles as their primary mode of transportation. There are large lots dedicated to parking bikes for the day for a small fee, and there is even an efficient system for temporarily renting bicycles in urban locations. There are some places where bicyclists are permitted to drive on the sidewalk or use the same stretch of pavement as those on foot.

When news of the revised traffic safety rules for bicyclists was announced in late May, some people took to social media to voice opposition to the new rules, while others say a crackdown on bicyclists is long overdue.

Shortly after the June 1 road safety laws for bicyclists came into effect, popular YouTube vlogger sandabee uploaded video showing bicyclists committing traffic violations in the ultra-busy Shibuya crossing:

Under the newly revised regulations, bicyclists who are caught violating one of the regulations more than twice in three years will be required to take a traffic safety course before being allowed back on the road. A single class lasts for three hours and has a mandatory fee of 5,700 yen (approximately US$40). Those who refuse to attend the course will be fined up to 50,000 yen (approximately US$450).

Some people have made their dissatisfaction known regarding the new regulations:

Should bicyclists watch out? What will increased enforcement of Road Traffic Law towards cyclists starting June 1 actually mean? -from NAVER Matome

I wonder if this will really cut down on idiotic bicyclists (charikasu, チャリカス). Next we can start fining pedestrians too.

Others have expressed concerns how much mandatory traffic class will cost for bicyclists caught breaking the rules:

All these damn traffic laws are sprouting up like grass. The penalty for riding with an umbrella or while drunk is 50,000 yen (US$400)… Since Japan just decided on this, shouldn't the lecture be free? 5,700 yen (US$40) is expensive, ya know!

A few have pointed out that since riding a bicycle, unlike driving a motor vehicle, doesn't require a license or formal training, it's possible some cyclists will misunderstand traffic signals or signs:

I'm totally interested in [becoming a better bicyclist], but as someone who doesn't have a license, I don't always know what road signs are actually supposed to mean. So it seems like I could violate one of these new regulations without knowing it.

However, there are some who are in favour of stricter regulations for cyclists, especially when it comes to anything that detracts from the ability to focus on the road:

Using a smartphone or umbrella while riding a bike is a pain in the ass (for other people). I'd love to see them really crack down on high school and middle school students for doing this.

And there were those who found humour in the situation:

TRAFFIC SIGN: “Cyclists – please ride within the blue zone on the left.”

Even though the new rules starting on June 1 are supposed to be tough on cyclists, don't you think this is a little over the top?

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