According to recent reports here, Japan’s National Police Agency is planning to carry out a major revision of Japan’s Road Traffic Law next year that will toughen restrictions on mobile phone use while driving. As the law now stands, drivers in Japan are already prohibited from using mobile phones when behind the wheel, but police are only allowed to penalize those who are a threat to others. According to Kyodo news, the NPA wants to fine drivers up to 50,000 yen ($465/ 375 euro) if they use their phones to talk or send e-mail while driving… even if they pose no danger to other vehicles or people.
According to news reports, the agency indicated 2,847 road traffic accidents resulting in injuries and involving the use of cell phones took place in 2003, out of which 41 were fatal cases. The NPA said it will seek public input on drawing up a bill to change the traffic law between Dec. 27 and Jan. 23. The bill is expected to be submitted to the regular Diet (Japanese parliament) session convening in January.
Having driven in Manhattan, Paris, London and Tokyo, and scootered around Saigon, we find the Japanese standard of driving to be.. predictably.. good; except for certain “Kamikaze” taxi drivers. But there are two things that legislation can’t seem to change here.
One, Japanese people don’t like using their seatbelts, and only old women, (some) parents with babies on board, and conservative foreigners such as your humble author, routinely obey the seatbelt laws. Stand at any busy intersection in Tokyo and you’ll see many drivers using their mobiles while turning corners, or lighting cigarettes and talking on their mobile phones while attempting to turn corners. We feel that old habits will die hard here and no amount of legislation will stop people taking that business or personal call, although it might help them make a few less.
We are not surprised that the NPA are looking to increase their fine revenues for what is well meaning but rather pointless legislation. We don’t understand what sorts of consultations are taking place. About 125,000 people die in traffic accidents each year, according to the OECD. In Japan, fatalities from traffic accidents have steadily decreased from 11,451 in 1992 to 8,226 in 2002. While the figures are not fully in for 2003, 41 deaths out of, say, 8,500 deaths is still 41 too many out of 8,500 too many, but mobile phone use is clearly not a major contributor to traffic accidents.
“Paper drivers” and the chronic overworking and double shifts by trucking companies are the main causes of accidents here in Japan. In fact, over the autumn a series of tragic pileups seemed to be taking place almost weekly caused by overtired truck drivers whose companies routinely forced drivers to be at the wheel for 14-18 hours to maintain delivery schedules.
For those of you who have never driven in Japan, you might like to know that driving licenses are awarded after fantastically expensive courses on “practice circuits” regulated by the NPA here, so that drivers are unleashed onto the nation’s highways never having driven on a real road.
Given that it’s the New Year, we are thinking of approaching the NPA and asking them to break out how many of Japan’s novice drivers get through their first year without a scrape or more serious accident compared with other countries. The author’s wife paid a standard $2000 for her driving course and got her licence despite the fact she felt she had gained little experience or confidence to drive. Of course, she could take another $2000 course (again, no real road, just a rinkydink circuit) to bolster her confidence!
Japan’s new legislation does look, however, to be taking it a step beyond international norms. In 2001 New York became the first state to prohibit the use of cell phones while driving, but the New York State Police has yet to gather data on the legislation’s effectiveness. Across the U.S about 22 states are currently considering some kind of cell phone regulation for drivers. And more than 35 countries including Italy and Greece have banned the use of hand-held mobile phones while driving.
Legislation introduced in the United Kingdom on December 1, 2003 will see drivers caught making calls while driving fined ｣30 initially, or up to ｣1,000 if their case goes to court. If caught breaking the ban, three penalty points will be put on their driving license for each offence. Before that, drivers were only prosecuted if proven that they’d failed to keep proper control of their vehicles.
A survey undertaken by the United Kingdom’s Royal Automobile Club showed that 90% of respondents agreed that using mobile phones when driving made for bad driving. Less touchy feely, and more scientifically, both UK govt. research and a study released by the New England Journal of Medicine say that drivers using cell phones are four times more likely to have an accident than those not distracted by a wireless device.
We don’t know the figures from China, or India, or Bangkok, but according to International Road Traffic Accident Data supplied by the OECD, you are almost twice as likely to die in a traffic accident in the United States compared to Japan (about 15 vs. 8 deaths per 100,000 population) and nearly three times as likely to become road kill in Portugal (21 deaths per 100,000).
Driving in Tokyo during the rush hour, and particularly when exiting highways and going through the toll booths (such as my recent 90 minute crawl covering just over a kilometer of highway) can be hugely long and frustrating waits. We think that attempting to make or take a call while actually driving, for example along the highway, in traffic, when turning corners etc. is dangerous and stupid. But taking or making calls when stalled in a long traffic jam, for example, is reasonable. The NPA needs to spell out exactly what the new legislation it is proposing will mean for drivers.
Better still, we think that simple technologies such as hands free adapters or voice recognition Telematic systems we saw at the Tokyo Motor Show should be made standard on new cars.
– The Editors