Since 2003, railways have asked passengers to turn off their mobile phones when near “silver” priority seats, for fear electromagnetic interference from the devices could interact with pacemakers, harming the wearer.

After 12 years, the ban on phones, the validity of which researchers say has long since been in dispute, will be relaxed. On Thursday, 37 railway companies in the Kanto, Tohoku and Koshinetsu regions announced that from Oct. 1, they will allow the use of phones near priority seats except during rush hour.

The new nonbinding rule urges passengers near priority seats to switch off their mobile phones only when the train is near capacity and there is little room to move. The railways will inform passengers of the change via public service announcements.

Priority seats are reserved for the elderly, disabled, and passengers with infants or toddlers and pregnant women, according to the East Japan Railway Co.

The move reflects the view of many passengers that the no-phone rule is “just an overreaction to unlikely risks,” said a JR East spokesman, who asked not to be named due to company policy.

The revision came after the internal affairs and communication ministry changed its official stance on the relationship between pacemakers and mobile phones last month.

The ministry’s research found that the electromagnetic waves from cellphones in use since July 2012 could interfere with some implantable medical devices if put within 3 cm of them — but only in the unlikely event that both the strength of the phone’s interference and the level of the pacemaker’s receiver sensitivity are set at maximum.

However, because such a situation is unlikely to occur in everyday settings, the ministry revised the guidelines in January 2013, concluding that using mobile phones is safe so long as they are kept 15 cm or more away from medical devices. In previous guidelines set in 2005, the ministry said a distance of 22 cm was safe.

Last month’s notice also said that cell phone within a distance of 15 cm will not necessarily affect pacemakers.

Some passengers have questioned the rule that, in practice, few people follow, the JR East spokesman said. No incidents of harm to pacemaker users have been reported since the rule’s 2003 introduction.

Despite the lack of risk shown in the studies, the no-phone rule had become a source of trouble among passengers.

In June, Masasumi Teratani, 71, warned a 50-year-old company executive who was using a tablet device while sitting next to Teratani in a priority seat on a JR Keihin Tohoku Line train. Teratani eventually threatened the man with a 17-cm-long knife and was arrested. The quarrel halted operations on three rail lines for 45 minutes, according to Kyodo News.

“Hopefully the rule change this time will prevent such trouble,” the JR East spokesman said.

An official for a group of pacemaker patients welcomed the shift.

“We have said (pacemaker patients) … should not worry too much,” as both today’s cellphones and pacemakers are much safer than before, said Susumu Hidaka, vice president of the nonprofit Japan Association of Cardiac Pacemaker Friends.

Hidaka, who himself wears a pacemaker and uses a mobile phone, has said phones these days have practically no effect on the implanted devices.

“I hope (the rule change) will alleviate the anxiety of pacemaker patients” by conveying the message that mobile phones would not normally affect the pacemaker functions, he said.

The same measure was adopted by railways in the Kansai region last year.

Although the relaxed rule may be a relief for cellphone users, railways are still asking passengers to refrain from talking on the phone on trains.

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