National

Blind man's death at subway station reignites call for safety barriers

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

The death Monday of a 55-year-old blind man who was hit by a subway train after falling onto the tracks at Aoyama-itchome Station has once again shone the spotlight on the need for safety barriers to prevent such all-too-frequent accidents from occurring.

According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, the tally for platform falls in 2014 was 3,673, up from 2,442 in 2009. Of those who fell in 2014, 80 were visually impaired.

The majority of the accidental falls are caused by drunkenness, with others caused by inattentiveness or other reasons.

It is believed that although the man’s guide dog was with him, he may have fallen while trying to skirt a pillar that was partially blocking the yellow braille floor tiles that run the length of the platform, according to Kyodo news. A safety barrier would most likely have prevented the accident.

But the installment of platform barriers with automatic safety gates — of prime importance to protecting the visually impaired — has been slow, with many major stations still unequipped, the transport ministry said.

As of March 31, only 77, or 30 percent, of the 250 or so stations nationwide that process more than 100,000 passengers a day had safety barriers installed, the ministry said. When smaller stations that get more than 3,000 passengers daily are included, the total of 665 brings the ratio down to 19 percent, it said.

To reduce the number of falls, the transport ministry asked railway companies in 2011 to prioritize the installation of platform barriers with doors at stations serving more than 100,000 people a day. From fiscal 2011, it also started subsidizing 30 percent of the installation cost.

The ministry hopes to increase the number of stations with automated safety gates to 800 from the current 665 by 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games. But that’s no easy task, given the massive cost and technical difficulties presented by some stations.

According to a transport ministry official, installation can cost anywhere from several hundred million to billions of yen. In addition, given the different types of cars in service, not all doors open in the same spots, making synchronization with the gates a headache.

Still, Hiroshi Oda, head of the National Counsel of Visual Disabled in Japan, said the government push ahead with installation.

“For us, a train station with safety barriers and those without are poles apart,” Oda, who is totally blind, told The Japan Times. “I get very nervous when I use a train station without platform barriers. I need to be extra cautious.”

Oda said that when he bumps into people, obstacles or pillars on the platforms, he usually loses his sense of direction. When that happens on a platform without safety gates, it can be nerve-wracking, he said.

“But if there are safety barriers, even if I head in the wrong direction I won’t fall off the platform. I will only bump against the gates,” he said.

“I really do hope the government will prioritize spending money to beef up such safety measures,” he said.

A survey of 252 visually impaired people by the Tokyo-based Japan Federation of the Blind in 2011 found that about 40 percent had experienced a platform fall in their lifetime. About 60 percent said they had experienced close calls. Many cited disorientation as one of the causes.

Asked on ways to prevent such accidents, around 90 percent said safety barriers were the best answer.

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