A growing number of local governments are introducing ordinances to obligate bicycle riders and rental companies to use liability insurance.
But as ordinances passed by local governments carry no penalties, experts stress that cyclists need to be made aware of the importance of taking out insurance.
Behind the move is an increase in bicycle use amid a fitness boom, resulting in more collisions and a series of court rulings ordering substantial payouts when pedestrians have been killed or seriously injured in accidents.
Takenobu Kato, a 21-year-old employee at a bicycle store in the city of Kagoshima, asks shoppers if they are covered by bicycle insurance.
“I recommend that they take out insurance because it becomes their biggest problem if they cannot pay the cost of treatment for people they have injured,” Kato said.
Kagoshima authorities introduced an ordinance mandating the use of bicycle insurance in 2017.
Nationwide in 2017, there were 2,550 collisions between cyclists and pedestrians and 2,749 between cyclists, up in both categories from the previous year, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.
In 2013, the Kobe District Court ordered the mother of an elementary school student who had collided with an elderly woman — leaving her in a vegetative state — to pay ¥95 million. The Tokyo District Court in 2014 ordered a man to pay ¥47 million after he hit a woman with his bicycle and killed her.
The Hyogo Prefectural Government in 2015 introduced an ordinance requiring cyclists to purchase liability insurance policies, paving the way for other local governments to follow suit.
As of the end of November, Hyogo and 10 other prefectures, as well as seven designated major cities, required bicycle users to get insurance, while 13 prefectures and three major cities had ordinances strongly recommending insurance coverage, without making it mandatory.
Insurance companies offer policies including those that can be taken out for several hundred yen per month or thousands of yen per year and pay indemnities of hundreds of millions of yen.
Insurance also affects shared bicycle services, which are increasing in urban areas, while bicycle tourism is attracting visitors including those from abroad.
The Fukuoka Prefectural Government is considering making the use of insurance compulsory while prompting residents, including foreign students, to recognize the importance of bicycle insurance.
A bicycle sharing system called Merchari started in the city of Fukuoka in February last year, enabling users to rent bikes for ¥4 per minute. The service, which is used by 140,000 people per month, includes an insurance premium in the fee, according to the operator.
“Insurance is indispensable for safe traveling,” a company official says.
In March, the central government concluded that a system forcing cyclists to take out liability insurance would be extremely difficult to implement, but it supports the adoption of ordinances by local governments.
Even so, such local ordinances lack teeth.
The national average ratio of cyclists having liability insurance stood at 56 percent in the period from December last year to February, according to a survey conducted by Au Insurance Co. The ratio in areas covered by ordinances was 64.3 percent. According to an official from Au Insurance, the survey findings reflect the different methods used by local governments to promote the need for bicycle insurance.
“Local governments should not only stress the risks of having no insurance but also come up with ideas that lead cyclists to take out coverage, such as allowing the insured to use bicycle-parking lots at lower rates,” said Tomoyuki Todoroki, a professor of transport system engineering at Nihon University.