Sunday, 13 January 2013

Driving in Japan is Scary

Does anyone know what is going on in this intersection?
 Driving in Japan is scary for two main reasons. First, more Japanese drivers than not are absolutely oblivious to the potential consequences of dangerous driving. Second, there is little to no enforcement of the traffic rules. Australians like to wax lyrical about speed cameras being "revenue raisers" and nothing to do with saving lives. I generally accepted that before coming here, and seeing what roads without police patrols and speed cameras (or even scarier, red light cameras) look like. In Australia the nightly news keeps a running "road toll" that is announced whenever a new fatality occurs. The annual toll in my state would, I am guessing, be approximately the monthly toll in the city I now live in. In 25 years in Australia I never personally witnessed a road fatality. In four years in Japan I've seen three. I know that personal anecdote isn't statistically significant, but it definitely affects how safe I feel. Speed + unskilled drivers = dead people.

I took this photo because the grass around the driving course was on fire, but it didn't really come out
When I say that drivers are unskilled, I'm not just reflecting on my own observations. A majority of the driving time required before taking a license test in Japan is completed in a closed course like the one pictured above. [Edit: apparently this is completely untrue, the Mr says it's only about 1/4 of the time.] Maps of the course are obtainable, the obstacles are in the same place every time, and there is no other traffic to cope with. There is a requirement for on-road driving, but it is 31 hours (for an automatic car, 34 hours for a manual). That's it. My husband attended an intensive driving school for fourteen days before getting a Japanese license (from scratch; he didn't have an Australian license). That's two weeks from the first time ever sitting behind the wheel to being out driving a station wagon across a mountain pass in a typhoon (that's another story). That in itself is scary (the husband disagrees; he says that new drivers are scared and careful and it is the experienced drivers who have lost their fear who are the dangerous ones).
This takes a bit of getting used to... my heart still leaps into my mouth sometimes as I drive under the red light.
Then there's the lack of awareness that road rules exist to stop people from dying. Everyone here speeds. Not only do they speed, but they become consumed with road rage if you don't speed. I have some sympathy for them, because the speed limits are stupidly low (40 kmph through most built up areas, which means most high ways, since Japan is densely populated, and 50 on the "open road"). However, the cultural acceptance of speeding seems divorced from any understanding of speed as a factor in fatalities. Particularly when kids on bicycles so often swerve out into the road, the concept of "stopping distance" is a really important one. Marshmallow Sensei wrote about the lack of reference to death in a drink driving seminar and I encourage you to read the whole thing; I notice this disconnect between driving and the potential for fatality every time I talk to someone about driving.

Yes, this is a kid's bike with a baby seat. In case that isn't terrifying enough, notice that there is only ONE helmet.

The guy in blue isn't crossing the road on his bicycle, he is swerving all over this busy highway (frequented by road haul trucks) in front of an elementary school at 1pm because he is drunk and on his way back from buying some extra booze to keep him going for the evening. I imagine this is a familiar sight in this neighbourhood.
Marshmallow Sensei writes:
The thing is the stats are what bother me, because in the talk I received on the matter the focus was certainly not on lives lost, but the punishment and damage to the driver. The fines paid, the loss of your job because you can’t drive, your family leaving you because you can’t support them anymore. Little mention of the victims involved beyond the driver.
The idea that a car is potentially a weapon doesn't get much currency here. On the rare occasion that someone does get busted breaking a road rule, in my experience they without fail describe it as a result of bad luck, not their own transgression. The conversation goes like this:
"I got a traffic fine."
"Oh, what happened?"
"I was unlucky."
"Yeah... what did you DO?"
"Oh, I was exceeding the speed limit by 20 kmph while talking on my cell phone."
"That's pretty bad..."
"Yes, very bad luck."

Running red lights, ignoring stop signs and driving the wrong way down one way streets are all done without batting an eye-lid. A member of my naginata club once said that she had been pulled over going the wrong way down a one way street. The police officer had let her off with a warning but she was deeply affronted that he had even pulled her over because "everyone drives down that street." The other club members chimed in with agreement. Apparently to get to the opposite end of the street without breaking the law requires driving for an extra five minutes, which is entirely unreasonable. The police officer was totally out of line, they all agreed.

It is this disregard for life and law that makes Japanese drivers so scary: they drive as though there is no one else on the road. Screaming U-turns across five lanes of traffic. No indicators (Americans say blinker, right?). Parking on the highway using the "park anywhere lights" (hazard lights) and leaving the car unattended to go shopping, forcing everyone to swerve into oncoming traffic to go around you. Driving down the centre line between two lanes. These behaviours are scary, but when you are on two wheels they are even scarier.

Because drivers rarely give way, this hardware store has hired a guy to stand at the exit. When  car needs to get out of the car park, he hits the pedestrian crossing button for them. It's literally the only way to make the rest of the traffic let them in. And yes, that is a real, full-time job. Reason #367 why Japan's unemployment rate is low.
I think the most frightening moment of my life occurred just down the road from my house. I was riding at about 5 kmph over the speed limit, but the woman behind me was throwing a fit at my lack of speed, honking her horn, riding so close I thought she was actually going to ram me, and gesticulating at me to pull over. As we approached a crossing for the local elementary school I saw that although the light had changed some kids and the crossing guard were still on the road. I slowed down, and seeing her chance the woman floored her accelerator and screamed around to overtake me on the crossing with the children on it. I had to pull over and wait to stop shaking before I could keep driving. No one was hurt. But they so easily could have been, and she didn't think twice about it.

But that's a downer to end a post on, so here's a random road video. What starts out as a sunny morning with clear blue skies can become this within the space of two hours:
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  1. Don't even get me started on the seatbelts issue too.... the number of small children I have seen standing up in the front of k-trucks here while the driver is belted in is too many to count.

    1. I hear you~ the baby held in a passenger's arms is another classic. Near my old apartment there was a guy who used to ride a scooter with his school-aged son crouched in the foot well (no helmet of course).

  2. We usually call them turn signals ;)

    It's kind of ironic that in a country where everyone is thought to care more about the group than themselves that they ca be so selfish while driving...

    1. The main issue, I think, is lack of enforcement. There are few police on the roads, fewer speed cameras and no red light cameras. Even when people do get pulled over the fines are ridiculously light.
      I wonder if anonymity plays a role though... no one can identify you in your car, you have a protective bubble that means you don't have to directly interact with others so the inhibiting power of social rules is diminished.

    2. I think anonymity could definitely play a role.

      There's also some interesting literature about individualistic cultures being "guilt-based" and collectivist cultures being more "shame-based." This might have some to do with the emphasis on the violator losing their job and family, which can involve shame from the community/extended family.

  3. I still need to get over my fear of driving here. Dustin and I both got our Canadian licenses changed into Japanese ones last year but as of yet only he has been brave enough to get behind the wheel. On top of everything that you mentioned, I am also a little freaked out of driving on the other side of the road, driving into the insanely deep open rain gutters along side the streets, and the absolutely teeny roads on which two cars are somehow expected to squeeze past. Throw in a bicyclist or two beside you or a good sharp drop off down the side of a hill and make sure it is a delivery truck that you are passing and my stress levels would be through the roof. And this is coming from someone who is used to driving on slick ice in a blizzard when it is -40 outside :)

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