Cyclists who flout law face charges

Tokyo pits prosecutors against unruly riders as accidents surge


Staff Writer

Traffic accidents have witnessed an overall decline in recent years, but the percentage of cases involving bicycles is on the rise.

National Police Agency data show bicycles were involved in 20.8 percent of all traffic accidents in 2011, up 18.5 percent from 2001.

There were also 2,801 bicycle accidents involving pedestrians in 2011, up 994 from 2001.

To reduce cycling-related accidents, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office announced in January that tougher action will be taken against unsafe riders in the Tokyo metropolitan area and that criminal charges will be pressed against those who repeatedly ignore red lights.

How many cyclists ignore red lights?

NPA data show that in 2010, police issued written warnings to 201,225 cyclists who ran red lights, compared with 105,851 in 2006.

2010 saw 725 traffic tickets issued for the offense more than 10 times the number issued in 2006, the data showed.

In Tokyo alone, 437 cyclists were ticketed for running red lights last year versus 55 in 2008, according to the Metropolitan Police Department.

Cyclists who break traffic laws may be issued a written warning, but those who receive tickets must appear before prosecutors.

What constitutes a serious violation?

An official at the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office said that a cyclist who ignores traffic lights and breaks other laws at the same time is considered a serious violator.

A cyclist caught running a red light while talking on a mobile phone will get a traffic ticket. Prosecutors won’t press charges against first-time offenders, but second or repeat offenders will face indictment, he said.

If a cyclist is found guilty, the fine could be as high as ¥50,000.

How were ticketed cyclists treated before the rule change?

In general, a traffic ticket can lead to prosecution, but most people got away with verbal warnings. This was because it was widely considered too harsh to punish cyclists when motor vehicle violations were only being punished with fines.

However, given the increase in cyclists ignoring traffic signals, Tokyo’s prosecutors decided to start pressing charges against flagrant violators.

Have there been cases in which cyclists were criminally charged?

Starting around 2011, prosecutors in many prefectures began pressing criminal charges against riders of so-called piste bikes, which are racing bicycles that lack brakes. Cycling while intoxicated has also led to charges.

NPA data state that 3,956 traffic tickets were issued to cyclists nationwide in 2011, reportedly including 17 that resulted in fines — five for drunken cycling and 12 for riding without brakes.

How many fatalities result from bicycle-related accidents?

In 2011, the 121,004 cycling accidents involving cars killed 556 people. Those involving motorcycles and scooters killed 17.

The 2,801 accidents involving pedestrians caused six deaths, while those involving other cyclists resulted in just one death.

What other traffic rules target cyclists?

Under the Road Traffic Law, bicycles are considered light vehicles, thus they basically need to follow the same rules as drivers.

Cyclists should keep to the left, and, in principle, they must ride on the pavement and not on the sidewalk. They are banned from riding side by side with other bicycles.

Cyclists also need to observe traffic signals and use headlights at night. Riding tandem is also illegal unless bicycles are equipped with special seats for small children.

Other prefectures have their own regulations, including bans on using umbrellas, mobile phones or headphones while riding, to ensure cyclists are paying full attention to traffic.

Why are cyclists increasingly ignoring the rules?

Observers say that there are many cyclists who lack adequate knowledge about basic traffic rules and that they generally have the attitude that cyclists don’t have to adhere to them as strictly as motorists do.

An MPD survey carried out in 2012 on 1,009 Tokyoites found that about 44 percent sometimes, or often, ride on the wrong side of the road.

About 24 percent of them said they sometimes, or often, ignore red lights as well.

Asked if they felt cyclists’ safety awareness was improving, only 3.5 percent of the respondents said yes. About 31 percent said the situation was worsening.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

  • I would say the disregard of traffic rules goes way, way beyond the cyclists in Japan. All cars drive through red lights and make me jump back when I try to cross at a green pedestrian light. And don’t attempt to cross a road at a zebra crossing, nobody gives priority at those. A general crackdown should be good idea.

  • blimp

    It is odd that they want to start enforcing the traffic rules for cyclists when they don’t enforce them for the biggest offenders, drivers of motor vehicles. At the intersection between Yasukuni doori and Uchibori doori, red lights are constantly ignored by drivers of cars, motorcycles, buses or lorries. And there is a big koban only two minutes walk from there at the Kudanshita station!

  • Let`s agree that a bike is about as half as dangerous as a small car. People who break the rules then should be fined half of what applies to a car driver.
    This should include breaking rules that puts others at risk. Cycling while texting or talking on your phone should feel the full force of a crackdown. If a bicycle is considered a light vehicle, and people are being punished for drunk cycling, they should also be punished for using their phone while cycling.
    As for cycling on the road, when proper bicycle lanes are provided, I would be happy to oblige.

    • Well, there is no statistical reason to agree a bike is half as dangerous as a small car, is there? Though, if the proper risk-analysis were done, this would be an interesting approach, and highly punitive for motor vehicles.

  • Ragazo Nizzo

    Before enforcing law to cyclists, police should learn first how to re-educate the bad drivers.
    Maybe bike accidents happen all the time because drivers have no respect.

  • Phillip

    When cyclists get an equal share of road funding, ie, bike lanes, then you can expect them to obey the road rules. Until that happens you can continue to expect more of the same. This so-called crack-down won’t last; it never does. I’m more worried about the number of people killed by cars and other motorised traffic each year.

  • rob

    One point that is missing is how many more people are riding bicycles in Tokyo. I’ll bet yah that 18.5% increase in accidents would drop dramatically when you include the increase in ridership.

  • rob

    When you take into account all the new bike riders in the past two years I’m sure those statistics would look a lot less dramatic.

  • Jameika

    If the police followed these rules, it might be easier to convince regular citizens that they should, too. I can’t count the times that I’ve seen police riding on sidewalks where they shouldn’t and ignoring stop signs (almost got hit by two police on bicycles–riding next to each other, no less–who ran through a stop sign on a blind corner).

    I don’t think the fine for a car running through a red light is nearly ¥50,000. Why would it be more for a bicycle?

  • Equalizer

    I agree. Bike riders are totally out of control in this country, whether they are riding on roads or on Sidewalks. They don’t stop at red lights or stop signs. They woosh by pedestrians on crosswalks or on sidewalks. Sidewalks have become more dangerous that roads. Now, pedestrians have to actually jump out of the way of bikes coming toward them at excessive speeds. I have witnessed two bikes colliding head-on on a sidewalk because neither rider wanted to get out of the way of the other. Bike riders actually ring their bells to tell pedestrians to get out of their way. On a sidewalk?!? Ridiculous. I feel sorry for the O-jisans and O-Bachans who can’t even walk safely in town. Instead of fixing the real problem, cars parking illegally on the side of the road and blocking bicycle lanes, the Japanese Police, in its infinite wisdom, authorised riding bicycles on some sidewalks. These are clearly marked with a blue traffic sign. Of course, in typical Japanese fashion, no one checks nor enforces the regulation so now, as expected, people are riding their bikes on every sidewalks, whether marked or not, while the real problem remains. So, now the Police created a second problem and they don’t know how to fix it. Unfortunately, there seem to be no new way of avoiding taking care of the problem. As usual, the victim, in this case the pedestrian, is made to suffer.

  • Eric

    I bike everyday more than an hour to and from work, and have for years. I live alongside a major road, and have seen 9 or 10 accidents in the last 3 months. I ride on the sidewalk, because every single accident I see is caused by preoccupied or impatient drivers. If I get a ticket, at least I still have my life and limbs. Still it’s a gamble especially at intersections without lights which is where it seems the majority of “trying to get somewhere fast” drivers go, so as not to have to burden themselves with stopping for anyone except for other cars.
    While it’s probably impossible to make bike lanes, I won’t be considering myself equal with cars or expecting their drivers to make appropriate space for me anytime soon.

  • upstairsforthinking

    I ride a bicycle and a motorbike in Tokyo and quite frankly I can’t see what is so difficult. All cyclists should be required to follow the basic road rules: only cycle on the left-hand side of the road, stop at all traffic lights/stop signs/give way signs and observe one-way street regulations.