Media Mix, May 13, 2012

Serving and protecting

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about road safety and the lack of discussion in the media about the role of infrastructure in the recent series of deadly accidents. Though I address briefly the notion that the media has certain interests it may want to safeguard by avoiding the subject, the problem is also exacerbated by a mindset that sees motor traffic as the norm in modern life. Last week a 60-year-old man wrote a letter to the Tokyo Shimbun expressing some of the same points I did about the media in my column but for a completely different purpose. He believes the media does not stress how responsible pedestrians are for many traffic-related accidents. He complains about people “crossing the street both in front and in back” of moving vehicles. “As a driver it scares me,” he writes. “Cars can’t stop quickly, though pedestrians think they can. Pedestrians should pay attention to manners.” Apparently, I wasn’t the only reader bothered by the letter’s patronizing tone. Several days later a 52-year-old man replied in the same space, saying that often he sees pedestrians walking across streets on painted crosswalks where there are no traffic signals. According to traffic laws, the pedestrian has the right of way in such a situation, but most of the time drivers don’t even decelerate. They just assume that since they are in a car and there is no traffic light they can keep going. “This is even more dangerous,” he writes, implying that, whatever anxiety the previous writer feels about people crossing the street, the pedestrian will always suffer worse in an accident than a motorist.

The war between pedestrians/bicyclists and drivers is an eternal one, but traffic laws should start from the understanding that the less technology at his disposal the more vulnerable an individual is. Therefore, pedestrians have more basic road rights than bicyclists and bicyclists have more rights than cars. However, practically speaking, this pyramid of rights is upended in Japan. Cars are prioritized by things like pedestrian overpasses, lack of posted speed limits in dense residential areas, and traffic law enforcement that is selective at best. Near my home is a shopping center, behind which is a busy road that connects to a main thoroughfare. There is no traffic signal at the intersection, just a stop sign, but cars never stop. The situation is so perilous that pedestrians who cross this street at the crosswalk actually stop for cars rather than vice versa. Pedestrians in my neighborhood have thus become conditioned to allow cars to pass first, even when drivers are obligated by law to make a full stop because there is a stop sign. I’ve never seen a policeman cite any driver at this corner. Some local police plan to reduce residential speed limits to 30kph, which sounds like a responsible action. From what I understand, when there is no speed limit indicated on a public road, it is effectively 60kph, which is way too much for most residential streets, but then so is 30kph, especially when most residential streets have no sidewalks and there are normally no police on motorcycles or in cars patrolling them. An Asahi Shimbun article about traffic accidents mentioned that if local police deem a main surface artery to be “safe” then they usually set the speed limit at 80kph, which is basically the same as that for an expressway. In the same article, a civil engineer said that there is no coherence to traffic safety rules in Japan because local authorities are free to set parameters anyway they want. Given Japan’s cramped infrastructure and heavy reliance on motor vehicles, he suggests adopting the roundabout system that is commonly used for intersections in Europe, since they force drivers to adapt to all road conditions at a given moment. Overhauling the road system in such a way would require a huge amount of resources for public works projects that the government now says it can’t afford. But it would also mean different ministries and agencies would have to work together, and that may be asking too much.

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