Pedestrians on Tokyo’s sidewalks could only welcome the report last week that the Metropolitan Police Department intends to crack down on bicycle riders who violate traffic regulations. Thirteen accidents in which cyclists were killed were registered in the capital as of the end of February, an increase of seven over the same period in 1998. Only two of the 13 fatal accidents did not involve transgressions of the road laws by the cyclists, ignoring traffic signals being prominent among them.

However, a question arises about implementation. If the Tokyo traffic police are no more successful than they currently are in stopping flagrant violations by truck and automobile drivers, what reason is there to believe the crackdown on bicyclists will succeed? Some observers expect it to be largely a case of good intentions and that in practice it will apply mainly to cyclists who are actually involved in accidents, rather than the many who regularly invite disaster and yet usually miraculously escape.

Bicyclists are only one small part of Japan’s road-safety problem, of course. After several years in which traffic fatalities nationwide registered a decline, deaths from all types of vehicle accidents are on the rise again. Figures for the first two months of the year show fatality rates higher than in the same period last year and suggest that it may be impossible to keep the total below 10,000 again in 1999. That is, unless regulations intended to protect drivers, their passengers and pedestrians are enforced — with the cooperation of an often stubborn public. In that case, accident-related deaths could begin to show a substantial fall from the 9,211 recorded for all of 1998.

One good start is the draft bill approved by the Cabinet at the beginning of this month requiring the installation of child safety seats in private cars for children under the age of 6 and prohibiting the use of portable telephones, except for those that can be used “hands-free.” These recommended amendments to the Road Traffic Law, the first since 1997, were incorporated into a bill drafted by the National Police Agency. The first revision, mandating the child safety seats, should be in effect less than a year after the bill becomes law. The prohibition against cellular-phone use will be enforced in less than six months from that time.

Japanese who have traveled abroad, as well as foreign residents and visitors, have often commented on the lack of child seats in this country’s passenger cars and the apparent disregard for child protections that it represents. Some drivers consider such requirements interference, but proof that the critics are right is readily at hand: 8,808 children under the age of 6 were killed or injured in traffic accidents in this country in 1997. Many of them were playing unrestrained on the rear passenger seat, standing on the seat next to the driver or in some cases even sitting on the driver’s lap, unprotected in any way.

A campaign to educate the public about the obvious advantages of using the seats must start now, and it should emphasize the substantial reductions in injury and death recorded in the United States and other countries that make them obligatory. The reaction among some drivers to the forthcoming requirement for their use here is disturbing. Complaints about the high cost of child safety seats in Japan raise serious questions about some people’s sense of values.

Restricting the use of mobile or cellular telephones in moving vehicles may be more problematic, since increasing numbers of people seem uncomfortable without one pressed to their ear, despite the clear danger, not only to themselves but to people in other vehicles and those walking alongside busy roads. Accidents in which drivers hit people while talking on portable phones totaled 2,648 last year, an increase of 15.3 percent from 1997. The number of fatalities rose by eight to 32, a one-third increase. Nearly 40 percent of the accidents occurred when the driver was trying to respond to an incoming call. Slightly more than 20 percent took place when the driver was placing a call.

Before submitting its draft proposals to the Cabinet, the NPA posted its planned revisions to the law on the Internet, seeking public reaction. Of the 3,900 valid responses received, nearly 90 percent favored the new regulations. What is needed in addition to revising the law, however, is stiffer penalties for violations. It remains debatable whether those provided in the draft bill — deducting one point from a driver’s license for failing to use a safety seat for a child under 6 and two points (plus a 9,000 yen fine and a possible but unlikely sentence of three months in jail) for portable-phone users who cause an accident — are enough to achieve the desired results.

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