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Are the Japanese really ‘safety drivers’?

29 Comments
By James M. Rogers
Japanese Safety Driver
Image: kumikomini/iStock

Most have probably heard the common English mistake “I’m a safety driver” by Japanese speakers. But do Japanese people make more mistakes driving than they do with English grammar? There seems to be no consensus when you speak to foreign residents in Japan. When I’ve discussed the matter with many of them over the years, some are adamant that the Japanese are bad drivers, while others feel they are overly cautious.

So, to determine which side is correct, I did some number crunching to compare Japan’s road safety with that of another country. I chose the U.S. to compare with because the International Transport Forum (ITF) lists it as having the most road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants of all IRTAD countries. What I found out was quite surprising.

Japanese roads are safer than U.S. roads

In 2021, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 6.1 million accidents. In an article “U.S. driving soars in 2021 to 3.23 trillion miles, up 11.2%” for Reuters, David Shepardson and Scott Disavino note that U.S. drivers drove 5.19 trillion kilometers in 2021, equating to one accident for every 850,000 kilometers driven.

Regarding accidents in Japan, the ITF Road Safety Report 2021 Japan stated that 744 billion kilometers were driven in 2019. The National Police Agency Transportation Bureau (NPATB) reported approximately 381,000 accidents in that same year in their 2022 Traffic Accident Report (Japanese). Thus, there was only one accident for every 2 million kilometers driven. In addition, the trend is continuing downward. In 2022, there were only 301,000 accidents reported in Japan.

Japanese roads haven’t always been safe

Moreover, compared to the “traffic wars” of the 1960s and 1970s, the current ratio of accidents per kilometer driven is six times less. However, after governmental efforts to improve road safety were implemented, this ratio saw a considerable drop between 1970 and 1975.

Since 1975, there has been a steady increase in accidents, which hit a high point in the early 2000s. The National Institute for Land and Infrastructure Management (NILIM) reported that approximately 950,000 accidents occurred each year from 2000 to 2005.

“... cutting the number of accidents on Japanese roads by two-thirds within 20 years is unbelievable. But how was this accomplished?”

In the above Road Safety Report for Japan, the ITF noted that there were 775 billion kilometers driven in Japan. This equates to one accident per 832,000 kilometers driven, which is very similar to the current ratio occurring in the U.S. Since the distance driven hasn’t changed much, cutting the number of accidents on Japanese roads by two-thirds within 20 years is unbelievable. But how was this accomplished?

New road safety initiatives in Japan

It may be deduced that various laws aimed to curb drunk driving introduced in 2007 in Japan may have played a role in this decline. However, data indicates that there were approximately 14,000 accidents involving drunk driving there in 2005 (when accidents were at a similar level to the year 2000), which dropped to 4,100 incidents in 2014. So, although a significant drop, this only amounts to around 2.5% of the total decline.

In 2011, the Japanese government introduced an initiative to develop “safe and secure pedestrian spaces on residential roads that prioritize people,” especially for children and the elderly. This included increased safety facilities such as sidewalks, pedestrian overpasses, guardrails and lighting, among other things.

In 2015, NILIM reported improvements in various areas. For instance, new sidewalk construction on two-lane roads led to a 59% decrease in vehicular accidents involving pedestrians aged 0 to 15 on such roads compared to 2000-2003 data.

The cumulative total effect of similar efforts in the last two decades has undoubtedly led to improved road safety. However, due to the complexity of the problem and the multi-faceted approach to addressing it, it’s difficult to pinpoint specific causes for such a substantial decline.

Do ‘kei’ cars cause more fatalities?

Koutsu-Anzen-Web-James-Rogers.jpg
Are Japanese drivers statistically more safety oriented? The studies say: "Yes." Image: James Rogers

When comparing road safety between the U.S. and Japan, it’s also worth exploring differences in vehicle types available. Japan has a kei, or light vehicle, class of cars with limits on their physical size, horsepower and engine displacement. These cars are significantly smaller than the smallest models available in the U.S. and thus can be more dangerous. Thus, they can be more dangerous since there is often less body and chassis area to serve as a crumple zone.

In an article for Motor 1, Juan Felipe Munoz reports that 34.1% of passenger cars in Japan in 2022 were kei-class cars. However, data does not support this vehicle class as being a cause of increased fatalities. In the U.S., there was one fatality per 142 accidents in 2021. In Japan in 2020, there was one fatality per 91 accidents. Although Japan had more fatalities per accident, half of these deaths were pedestrians or cyclists.

In comparison, in the U.S., only 17% of traffic accident fatalities were pedestrians or cyclists. So, the reality that there are more pedestrians and cyclists on Japanese roads has led to more accidents involving them, and since they are more vulnerable, more deaths occur. Thus, it is not car size but rather the type of accident (vehicles hitting pedestrians/cyclists) causing Japan’s higher fatality rate.

On buckling up in Japan

It’s also worth noting that on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s page about seat belt usage, in 2021 U.S. seatbelt usage stood at 90.4% for drivers, 89.4% for front passengers, and 78% for rear passengers. The situation in Japan is much worse.

Nippon.com reported that despite drivers using their seatbelts 99% of the time and front passengers 96% of the time, rear passengers only wore their belts 43% of the time. This fact should lead Japan to a higher fatality rate than the U.S., but the data shows this is not the case for car passengers. I was also surprised to learn that rear passenger seat belt usage — only 9% in 2007 — has significantly increased in Japan.

Data provided by the NPATB in their 2022 Traffic Accident Report also indicates that the age group with the most fatalities in the U.S. is 15-24 years old, while in Japan, it’s 65 or older. So, the average age you can get your learner’s permit in U.S. states is 15.2. The reality that teenage drivers tend to be more reckless than adults may contribute to the increased accident rate in the U.S.

So, are the Japanese really “safety” drivers? Compared to the U.S., the data above indicates that the answer is mostly yes.

However, this has not always been the case. It’s only since the end of the “traffic wars” in the 1970s — and especially in the last two decades — that Japan has significantly reduced its accident rate.

While Japan still needs to improve cyclist and pedestrian safety, recent significant improvements in road safety have led me to believe that Japan now has two miracles under its belt: its post-WWII economic recovery and its dramatic increase in road safety over a short period of time.

© Japan Today

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29 Comments
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It's safe until you see senior driver on the road.

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/03/02/national/crime-legal/japan-elderly-drivers-record-fatalities/

https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2021/09/d07493694df1-jail-term-to-be-finalized-for-90-year-old-over-fatal-tokyo-car-crash.html

-12 ( +7 / -19 )

Well, there are more seniors and senior drivers drivers by percentage in Japan, what do you expect? Since the article compares to the US, Japanese life expectancy is 8 years longer than the US.

13 ( +16 / -3 )

Well, there are more seniors and senior drivers drivers by percentage in Japan, what do you expect? Since the article compares to the US, Japanese life expectancy is 8 years longer than the US.

Well, it's expected that they will have more, just like it's expected that young teen drivers will also have more in the U.S. But to have more than twice the amount of accidents? Plus, a downward trend over the last 20 years despite the increase in elderly people? Kinda goes against logic. Being an American, and remembering how I used to drive as a teen, certainly I'd rather be on a Japanese road.

6 ( +9 / -3 )

Kids climbing all over the seats , no one stopping at pedestrian crossing, hazard lights used as a fail safe "I,m parking here " method, and dont get me started on drivers using mobile phones....yep Japan is kicking it with road safety....not

1 ( +13 / -12 )

Maybe on the roads but they’re certainly not safer in parking lots. Backing into a parking space, if you don’t need to, is so much riskier and time consuming than backing out of a space. Probably why so many kids get hit by their parents :(

5 ( +9 / -4 )

Are the Japanese really ‘safety drivers’?

No.

who lied to you?

I swear, I’ve never seen a driver look forward. They’re either looking down at their phone or out of their side door window.

I mean seriously, what are they looking at?

I know for a fact, they drive by following the car IN FRONT of them. Not the car ahead of the one in front of them.

-4 ( +8 / -12 )

Well yes, to obtain a driver's license here it is far more difficult than in the US. The Japanese were trained from the start to be able to navigate narrow roads and enter difficult situations whereas when I obtained my license in the US, the test was so easy that I am surprised there are people out there who fail it. The Japanese are really good drivers (aside from "paper" and "Sunday" drivers), being able to understand the width and depth of their car when passing through narrow roads/ parking and such, but I wouldn't consider them "safe". Safer maybe, but the tailgating, running through red lights, not stopping before trying to enter traffic, slamming on brakes and turning before signaling, and other encounters I have had throughout my time driving here scares me sometimes. Almost feels like dodging a bullet every time I get behind the wheel.

3 ( +8 / -5 )

I agree with Euro, Shogun and Guru.

The idea that the Japanese are safe or good drivers is ludicrous.

-2 ( +10 / -12 )

Perhaps we could get a comparison with countries such as the Nordic countries or the Netherlands. I wonder how Japan would fare then.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Living in Fukuoka, I can honestly say, and based on experience, No! They are some of the worst drivers, and I have been to countries where people are just downright horrible, but Fukuoka is the worst in the mornings, Mothers who are in a hurry to take their kids to school are some of the country's worst drivers. Italy, Mexico, and Israel have extremely bad drivers. You pay thirty thousand yen, take all these classes and they still can't drive or following the rules of the road.

3 ( +10 / -7 )

No way at all. Let's start with the national pastime of red light running.

This is despite the 'rigorous' training in an off street facility.

2 ( +8 / -6 )

 ...while others feel they are overly cautious.

Hahahahahahahahaha...

0 ( +5 / -5 )

Gaijinjland

Maybe on the roads but they’re certainly not safer in parking lots. Backing into a parking space, if you don’t need to, is so much riskier and time consuming than backing out of a space.

It's not any riskier. And, while it may be more time consuming while parking, but is that much quicker when leaving. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

The reason for it is usually due to the narrow maneuvering space in most garages and parking lots, at least in older ones. It takes less maneuvering space to back in and leave forward than vice versa. And, even after garages got wider, the practice of backing in remained.

Probably why so many kids get hit by their parents :(

They can just as easily be hit while backing out of a space. Again, six of one...

I know other Westerners who seem bothered by back-in parking. I find it an odd thing to be bothered about, when there are so many more annoyances from driving in Japan.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

I learned to drive in Germany when 17, I am now 23. Now i am living in the UK and the standard of driving is generally good, but not as it should be. So often the driver in front of me does not indicate when turning, or they leave it until they have actually started turning...duh! Speeding is the worst thing though, very few seem to obey any speed limit signs, especially in built up areas. Oh, and tail-gating....grr! I am also a motorcyclist and have to be constantly aware of stupid drivers, you know, the ones who don't look or fail to see you, although I wear full safety gear, like reflective yellow jacket, helmet and gloves. The one thing I do though is to look far ahead, at least 50-100 metres to see any possible dangers, this has saved me on many occassions.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

I know other Westerners who seem bothered by back-in parking. I find it an odd thing to be bothered about, when there are so many more annoyances from driving in Japan.

One thing I will say, if you are not a good back-in parker, after 3 years in Japan you will be able to rear-end park anywhere on the planet, that's for darned sure.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

They're awful. They're just like Asian drivers!

-3 ( +5 / -8 )

One never quite understands why many Japanese drivers drive the way that they do until one has gone through Japanese driving school or taken the Japanese driving test.

Many drivers are overly cautious to the point of causing accidents (e.g., braking mid-turn in an intersection for no apparent reason, stopping at a green light because the crosswalk light for pedestrians turned red, and so on). The exam encourages many bad habits.

What is weird is that a lot of these “cautious” drivers are also brake first, signal later types, which makes no sense. They are craning their necks mid-turn in intersections to squeeze in a sixth or eighth safety check to their sides and rears because “safety number one,” but they can’t remember to flip on their turn signals before starting the same turn.

The better Japanese drivers ignore a lot of what they were taught, hold onto the bits that were valuable, and use common sense.

A lot are simply inattentive. They are looking at their phones or watching the TV on their car navi screens.

The letter-of-the-law types can be insanely dangerous sometimes. Almost daily, I see someone stopped, car half on the road in busy traffic, just so that the driver can talk on a cell phone without technically breaking the law. Stopping on the road in heavy traffic, forcing other cars into the opposite lane to pass is safer?

And then there are some other categories of Japanese drivers. There are the hyper aggressive, who will speed up an extra 30kph just to avoid getting passed. There are those who realize the nonsense of the driving instruction, and so they throw out everything and drive like maniacs. There are bikers who cut between cars. These nuts are less than 10 percent of drivers in Japan, but they stick out.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Are comparisons to the U.S. all that meaningful? Look closer at the contexts.

Japan doesn’t grant licenses until 18. Even then, many don’t get licenses until later in their 20s or even beyond. Driving school is expensive. Cars are expensive to keep. People in cities can mostly get around without them.

America, in contrast, grants licenses at 16. In some places, kids can drive even as young as 14. Most kids get learner permits at 15 and licenses at 16. Young drivers have a lot of accidents. Japan avoids young, risky driving behavior by setting a higher age.

For drunk driving, too, Japan has been crazy strict since long before 2007. Rules in 2007 didn’t tighten that much. Before then, if you got caught with even a tiny drop of alcohol in your system, you were in huge trouble (license suspended for a long time, huge fines, possible job loss).

America is more obsessed with safety than Japan in some areas (e.g., kids in car seats), but these areas tend to save only a few dozen lives a year. Meanwhile, youth driving and drunk driving combined account for more than the difference in accidents and fatalities between the two countries.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Well maybe my concern is unwarranted then. I thought Japan would be quite dangerous based on my anecdotal experience of seeing frequent red light dashing, having toddlers and infants in the front seat sometimes standing with their face against the panel that holds the airbag, truck drivers openly using iphones while driving on narrow roads. As a pedestrian who walks a lot my larger annoyance is the creeping invasion of sidewalks by bicycles that follow no rules whatsoever.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

mikeylikesit

One never quite understands why many Japanese drivers drive the way that they do until one has gone through Japanese driving school or taken the Japanese driving test.

Many drivers are overly cautious to the point of causing accidents (e.g., braking mid-turn in an intersection for no apparent reason, stopping at a green light because the crosswalk light for pedestrians turned red, and so on). The exam encourages many bad habits.

The written test is pretty normal, But, the behind-the-wheel proficiency test is ridiculous. You are so right about it promoting bad behaviors. One needs to unlearn the things they were taught for the test, once they start actually driving.

And then there are some other categories of Japanese drivers. There are the hyper aggressive, who will speed up an extra 30kph just to avoid getting passed. There are those who realize the nonsense of the driving instruction, and so they throw out everything and drive like maniacs. There are bikers who cut between cars. These nuts are less than 10 percent of drivers in Japan, but they stick out.

Wayyyyyyyyyyy more than 10%. I'd say more than 50%. (At least in Kansai.) Red-light-running, tailgating, crosswalk-ignoring, TV-watching, etc are all the norm.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

According to the attached website, Japan is the best in the world.

1 Japan, 2 Netherlands, 3 Norway

https://www.comparethemarket.com.au/car-insurance/features/worlds-best-drivers/

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Wow, so many angry people commenting. Driving is so slow here, that you can walk faster.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Guys, your personal anecdotes don't trump actual statistics. I complain a lot about drivers here too, but I have driven in many countries and the driving is far worse in most of them except some European countries.

The fact is this: drivers in Japan are among the safest in the world. They can be quite annoying, but there are no statistics comparing countries on that basis.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Japanese are safe drivers in Japan. But their driving style doesn't really work as well in bigger countries with wider roads, and they can be awkward drivers in other countries.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

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