On Jan. 26, Tokyo District Court began hearing a case in which a bicycle delivery person is accused of riding recklessly and causing the death of a 78-year-old man in Itabashi Ward last April. Prosecutors are demanding a 2-year prison term for Junya Iwano, the rider who, at the time he struck the man, was carrying out deliveries for Uber Eats, the app-based service contracted by food establishments for their meal deliveries. Reportedly, Iwano was in the middle of a “quest,” which is a kind of challenge offered by Uber Eats and other companies to its delivery persons to complete a certain number of deliveries in a given period of time for extra money. It was raining when Iwano struck the victim, and Iwano did not have a bike light, though the accident happened around 7 p.m. Quests are usually offered during peak demand periods, such as when the weather turns bad.
The coverage of the trial, which is expected to end on Feb. 18, was widespread and mostly focused on the quest aspect, since it is assumed that such incentives are what caused Iwano to ride recklessly in the first place. However, there are other factors that have received less attention and which Iwano’s defense may use to get him a suspended sentence (he’s already admitted his guilt and apologized). One is, of course, the rain. Iwano wears glasses and constantly had to wipe the moisture from his lenses while riding. Such an excuse by itself wouldn’t normally mean anything in court, but combined with the Uber Eats’ incentive and its attendant implication that delivery persons only make as much money as the number of deliveries they can achieve, there is a good chance the judges could be swayed that it was the system that caused the accident rather than the rider. Iwano, it should be noted, has a full-time office job and works for Uber Eats to make enough money to live on. It’s an old story and doesn’t excuse his actions, but it may have an effect. What’s particularly sad about the story is that bonus Iwano was working for was only ¥1,200, and it required him to make 12 deliveries in the space of 4 hours.
Media coverage has mostly put the onus on Uber Eats, but behind this coverage is a kind of accepted narrative that bicyle riders are dangerous to being with. A Jan. 28 Tokyo Shimbun article explaining the quest system points out that in this case a charge of what amounts to manslaughter was applied to an accident involving a bicycle, and since the delivery person is not formally an employee of Uber Eats but a contractor, Uber Eats itself cannot be implicated in the crime. Consequently, as Tokyo Shimbun points out, there has been pressure on the legal system to codify the relationship between companies like Uber Eats and their contractors so as to hold these companies accountable for any damages these contractors cause. In 2021 alone bicycle delivery persons caused 114 accidents in Tokyo involving pedestrians. In at least one case from 2020, the accident was serious enough for the police to refer the case to prosecutors. As one lawyer told the newspaper, bicycles are still “not considered” dangerous tools of trade the way automobiles are, and so riders are rarely cited in cases related to “on-the-job negligence,” but the Itabashi accident was serious enough to prompt a manslaughter charge, which means such charges will probably be filed more often in similar accidents from now on. A representative of the Tokyo Prosecutor said that officials needed to distinguish bicycle riding for money from bicyle riding for commuting or pleasure, which means bicycle riders should be subject to stricter vehicle safety laws and the companies they work for should be held responsible for their behavior while working. Another official said simply that Iwano’s prosecution is a clear signal to riders and companies alike that reckless riding that leads to injury will be “punished to the full extent of the law.” A research group that promotes bicycle use told Tokyo Shimbun that the quest system automatically means Uber Eats should be held responsible in this case, since the company dangles monetary incentives before its contractors without sufficiently ensuring that they ride safely and follow all traffic rules.
However, even before the Itabashi accident, bicycles had been receiving more negative coverage than positive owing to a number of factors, the main one being an attendant increase in coverage of reckless bike riding that has lead to injury or death. Almost all of these cases involve student bicycle riders colliding with elderly pedestrians, usually on sidewalks. According to statistics cited by the research group mentioned above, between 2006 and 2009, 40 percent of accidents involving bicycles and pedestrians occurred on sidewalks, with 20 percent happening at intersections with traffic signals. But of all accidents involving bicycles (including with cars and other vehicles), 60 percent were at intersections and only 10 percent were on sidewalks. Clearly, it is mainly the accidents where bicycles injure pedestrians that get the most attention. When a car hits a bicycle, it’s not news.
This increase in reckless bike riding was accelerated by the well-publicized accident in 2013 in Kobe when an elementary school student on a bicycle collided with a female pedestrian who subsequently fell into a coma and died. The Kobe District Court ordered the student’s family to pay ¥95 million in compensation, a sum most media agreed was both appropriate and impossible to pay. But as a Nov. 2020 Diamond Online article explained, it wasn’t the first time a court had awarded the victim of a bicycle collision such a high award. It just happened that the media paid extra attention to this case, which lead to a heated discussion of reckless bicycle riding and what the police should do to address it. In 2015, the discussion practically boiled over when a 17-year-old boy on a bicycle struck and killed a policeman on a sidewalk in Kochi Prefecture. The victim’s family demanded ¥119 million, and the court ordered the boy’s family to pay ¥94 million. In addition, the court sentenced the boy, who was at the time of the verdict an adult, to 3 years in prison suspended for 5 years. As a result of these and other cases, local governments throughout Japan have been mandating liability insurance for all bicycle riders, and not just those who use their bikes for work.
The problem, however, is more structural in nature. Though the media focuses on young people who are reckless, whether they be students or delivery persons, in the vast majority of bicycle accidents the victims are the riders themselves. Two weeks ago, the Asahi Shimbun reported that nationwide the number of bicycle accidents in which someone died increased by 50 percent from 2020 to 2021 due to the pandemic, which prompted more people to forego public transportation so as to avoid crowded, closed spaces. Of the examples cited by the newspaper, one in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture was notable. A man in his 40s was riding a bicycle when he was hit by a light truck and killed. The driver of the truck was not cited, however, because it was determined that the rider had somehow swerved out of a dedicated bike lane and into the vehicle lane, though Asahi doesn’t say why that may have happened. In any case, the official report put the blame on the bicycle rider. This seems an insufficient explanation when placed against statistics mentioned elsewhere in the article, which state that neighboring Saitama City plans to construct 200 kilometers of bike lanes by the end of fiscal 2022. By the end of fiscal 2020, the city had already completed 155 kilometers. But on further inspection, the article says that while the purpose of bike lanes it to prevent bicycles from encountering vehicles or pedestrians, at some junctures bike lanes are “combined” with vehicle lanes and even with sidewalks.
According to the National Police Agency, between 2009 and 2019, the number of bicycle accidents decreased by 50 percent, a portion that mirrors the decrease in all traffic accidents during the same period. However, the number of accidents involving bicycles and pedestrians decreased by only 10 percent. And while the number of traffic deaths overall has also been decreasing, the number of deaths of bicycle riders has been on the increase. In this case, the problem is likely demographic: As more elderly people give up their driver’s licenses due to pressure from police and loved ones they turn to bicycles for their short-range transportation needs.
So in the overall scheme of things, bicycle riders still have more to worry about from vehcles than pedestrians have to worry about from bicycles, which isn’t to say the police should not crack down on reckless bike riders. The point, as already mentioned, is that the problem is both structural (poor road infrastructure, dangerous economic incentives for delivery people, continuing reliance on sidewalks for bike riders) and demographic (increased bicycle usage by elderly and people without proper knowledge of bicycle safety), and can’t be solved by stricter traffic laws alone. Everyone seems to agree that bicycles are better for health and the environment than automobiles are, but automobiles are privileged because auto manufacturers and attendant businesses are still considered economically vital to the country. Bike riders are caught in the middle, between pedestrians, who are often justifiably scared of them, and vehicles, which often kill them. They deserve more respect.