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Reckless bicycle riding endangers lives

A man holds onto an umbrella as he cycles in rain in Tokyo. Image: REUTERS file

Motor vehicles in the wrong hands are deadly weapons. We’ve always known that, and harsh reminders came in the form of two April tragedies occurring within two days of each other – one killing a mother and child in Tokyo, the other two young adults in Kobe.  Bicycles, we like to think, are innocent. Not so, says Josei Seven (May 2). Numbers, sometimes, speak for themselves. Between 2014 and 2018, according to the National Police Agency, 5,776 children were killed or seriously injured in traffic accidents – 34 percent of them involving a bicycle.

May traditionally sees a spike in bicycle mishaps. Spring is in full bloom, the bikes come out of the garage, everybody seems to be riding one. Maybe it’s the exhilaration caused by the fine weather, or maybe the long winter layoff has dulled our responses. Whatever the explanation, forewarned is forearmed – which is the point of Josei Seven’s article.

Note this, it advises: Bicycles are classed as “light vehicles,” meaning they are barred from sidewalks. That’s been true since around 1970. Before that, cyclists and pedestrians shared the sidewalk – to the all-too-frequent detriment of pedestrians struck from behind, often by bicycles they hadn’t even known were there. Police say nearly 100 percent of cycle-pedestrian collisions are the cyclist’s fault. Walkers and riders proved a dangerous mix. Now they’ve been separated. This saves pedestrians but forces on cyclists an uneasy co-existence with cars, trucks and buses. No wonder so many cyclists take their chances with the law (which imposes up to three months in prison or a maximum 50,000-yen fine on violators) and ride on the sidewalk anyway.

A generation or so ago the most common cyclist-pedestrian clash involved a young rider and an elderly pedestrian. Lately, police say, the perpetrator is as likely as the victim to be elderly. “As we age,” explains a National Police Agency spokesperson, “we tend to lose our powers of judgment, our reflexes and our sense of balance.” Deadly losses, for a cyclist! The elderly react slowly – more slowly than things happen around them. Finding the brakes at last, they bear down on them with a grip that may have lost much of its force. Compounding the problem, says Josei Seven, is the fact that many elderly riders are on electricity-assisted bikes, motors supplementing pedal power. These have a way of accelerating unexpectedly, and being that much harder to stop, especially to riders not fully accustomed to them.

Parents taking a child – or, more precariously, two children, mounted front and rear – to school also favor electricity-assisted bikes. Here the problem of balance takes on an added dimension. Make sure the kids are wearing helmets, the magazine warns. Sixty percent of serious bicycle accidents result in strong blows to the head – the equivalent, police say, of falling out a second-story window.

Two final cautionary notes: Drunk driving is generally associated with motorists, but drunk cycling is no less illegal, punished by up to five years in prison or a maximum fine of 1 million yen.

Lastly: no umbrellas, earphones or smart phones while cycling, on pain of being fined up to 50,000 yen.

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According to Osaka Prefectural Police:

In the following cases, a bicycle is permitted to travel on a sidewalk.

Where there is a traffic sign permitting bicycle use. Where cyclists are children under 13 years old; the elderly above 70 years old; or the physically disabled. Where a bicycle cannot travel safely in a road because roadwork, parked cars or heavy traffic hinder the safe movement.

Paragraph 2, Article 63-4 of the Road Traffic Law

Punishment: a fine of 20,000 yen or less

When on a sidewalk, a bicycle shall move on the half portion of the sidewalk to the road way side.

When on a sidewalk, a bicycle shall move at such a reduced speed as to be able to stop immediately.

A bicycle shall stop whenever the travel of pedestrians is impeded.

A bicycle shall pass on a designated portion if there is a bicycle lane designated for the bicycle use.

Where there is a bicycle lane designated for the bicycle use, use the lane. If no pedestrians are on the sidewalk, a bicycle shall pass on the sidewalk in a safe manner according to the road condition.

This seems rather at odds with what is published in this article.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

I do agree cyclists should be on the road mostly and not the sidewalk, but I disagree with the collisions being 100% the cyclists fault. Pedestrians in Japan are just as selfish, irresponsible, and unaware as some cyclists. They are just less dangerous because there is no light vehicle under their control. The main problem is that everybody thinks that they have the right away because this is "safety Japan", and no one will say anything to them on the street if they break the rule.

2 ( +6 / -4 )

Like most things, I think Japan has enough rules. What it lacks is enforcement.

Sixty percent of serious bicycle accidents result in strong blows to the head – the equivalent, police say, of falling out a second-story window.

That contradicts the design and testing of helmets overseas, which concentrates on falls from riding height onto pavement only. That is the main cause of injury and is largely unaffected by speed. It's the gravity that get you, not your speed. Conversely, if are coming down a hill and go headfirst into a wall or tree at speed, it is accepted that a helmet will not protect you, not even ones with safety marks and MIPS and whatever. Such accidents are rare, so the most important aspect is falls to ground, which is what cycling helmets are designed for. I doubt a helmet would save anyone going headfirst out of a second-story window.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Lastly: no umbrellas, earphones or smart phones while cycling, on pain of being fined up to 50,000 yen.

A simple way to cut down accidents would be for the police to actually enforce these rules. Riding with an umbrella is just plain dumb and an accident waiting to happen.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

I say, if one is in charge of a moving machinery, then one must take extra steps of safety precautions. We all are moving vessles under the international commerce law, yet some human vessels utilizing additional equipment is responsible in being more careful than those without.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Whenever I see someone riding a bike with an umbrella I shout "Get a rainsuit!"

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Interesting. I've seen bicyclists in the in the U.S., particularly in the beach communities, riding about disregarding stops signs and red lights and twiddling on their smartphones (with one hand!). They must believe street traffic rules are not applicable to bicyclists. Or is it a sense of entitlement that, as bicyclists, they can do as they please.

I've seen aggressive and daring bicyclists in Latin America, Philippines and Thailand darting in and out of traffic in complete disregard to traffic rules.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

That guy in the picture.... I see that all the time, and I just don't get it. He's taking a huge risk of having an accident, and for what? So he can ruin his umbrella while he gets soaking wet? It's just so pointlessly stupid.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

You also forgot to mention that a recent law now requires that all cyclists ride on the same side of the road as cars. That law was brought into effect more than 2 years ago from memory, however we still see cyclists riding on the opposite side of the roads into on-coming traffic.

I have the same amazement as kniknaknokkaer and cringe every time I see a kid race around a corner or come out of a small laneway at speeds that no-one could fathom.

I've been told that the kids are taught at school how to ride bikes in Japan by the police. I don't think the lesson has much affect because many of the kids still ride their bikes dangerously in Japan. I would prefer to use shock tactics when teaching the kids how to ride safely in Japan. A visit from people who are crippled from bike accidents would most likely have a lot of sway.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Cyclists in Tokyo are a nightmare and I say that being someone who cycles anywhere from 10 to 40 km. a day. I try to obey the rules of the road because a bicycle is considered a light vehicle and as such, is supposed to drive on the road, the same side as cars. The problem arises when I encounter other cyclists who ride against traffic and expect me to pull out further into the road. I generally refuse and will simply stop and put my bicycle in a position which forces them to pass me on the right, putting themselves closer to the oncoming cars. What I mostly get are uncomprehending looks or irritated glares. Whatever! If you want to ride against traffic you can deal with the consequences.

What people don't seem to get is that while you can see what's coming at you when you're going straight along, as soon as you make a turn, you'll be driving right into oncoming cars which you won't be able to see before you make the turn.

As for cycling on the sidewalk, that's not nearly as safe as people think either. Yes, the damage will likely be greater if a car hits you as opposed to you colliding with a pedestrian but drivers (of cars) have a vested interest in being predictable whereas pedestrians on the pavement don't, at least not as much, which is why you see people pop into or out of shops without looking around them or with their faces stuck in their phones. Add to that, cars who drive past pavement before turning. If you're on a bicycle and don't stop before crossing a road you have a serious risk of being hit.

In all my many years of cycling in Tokyo, I can honestly say that I feel far safer cycling on the roads than I do on the pavement and when I've had problems, the vast majority of them have been with inattentive pedestrians and other cyclists riding along, seemingly without using much common sense.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

The worst thing is the people on the quite zesty docomo cycle share bikes. They are on footpaths in your neighbourhood mostly piloted by reckless gaijin and salarymen who are often off chops having missed the last train.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"Note this, it advises: Bicycles are classed as “light vehicles,” meaning they are barred from sidewalks."

Not in Tokyo! I have been told to get off the street and ride on the sidewalk. I ride a road bike at speeds of 25 to 45km/h so most of the time I am actually going with traffic if not passing it. How would it be safer to ride on the sidewalk is what I always ask these keystones that coming running from their Kobans when they see me coming down the road. I always wear a cycling helmet and have full lights front and back as well for night rides.

0 ( +2 / -2 )


I couldn't agree with your post more.

Sorry for the spelling.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Adult cyclists are duty bound to ride on the road except for "yamo wo enai" (can't be helped) circumstances.

In practice, this means whatever the odd individual cop doing some enforcement wants it to mean. For the most part, there will be no enforcement and it's basically a get out when there is an accident. I get the impression that cops are most worried about cyclists on the pavement taking out elderly pedestrians, and this law means they can be punished on the basis that they should have been on the road. If you want to ride on the pavement, you can probably do so the majority of the time on a "it can't be helped, this is a dangerous road" basis.

Compared to the guy in the photo though, who is on a road but can't see where he is going and has one arm off the handlebars at the mercy of the wind, the sidewalk issue is rather trivial.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Another idea, is having bicycles with a front headlight which is powered by an electric generator attached to one of the wheels.  Also a rear reflector.  Small rear view mirrors attached to bicyclist's helmets can also help the bicyclist.  (former bicycle cop).

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Classic Japanese bicycles are designed to NOT go on the road. There used to be a problem with typical Asian-style packs of bicycles crowding up the roads in Japanese cities, so bicycles were specifically designed to be heavy and slow, and better suited for sidewalks.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

What amazes me each day is how some cyclists just ride out of blind side street junctions without looking for cars at all. How can you have such a low sense of self preservation?

They don't look for bicycles either. I took to wearing a helmet for even the shortest ride close to home because I've had too many closes calls when women with two or three kids on an electric bike shoot out of blind side alleys.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Perhaps dedicated bicycle lanes would help the problem. Certainly helmets are a great idea.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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