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Safety steps for foreign drivers introduced amid rise in accidents

This photo taken in September 2018 shows a warning sign saying "Slow Down" in Korean, set up on an expressway in Oita, southwestern Japan. (Kyodo)

FUKUOKA (Kyodo) -- With an increasing number of foreigners unused to driving in Japan taking the wheel during their visits to the country, numerous traffic safety measures have been introduced to assist them amid a rise in serious accidents.

    Warning signs in multiple languages and a driver-assistance system catering to foreign tourists are just some of those methods to support visitors who rent cars and travel around the country.

    Many rental car users come from South Korea and Taiwan, where people drive on the right-hand side of the road, as opposed to the left in Japan. Foreign drivers can also be confused by Japanese road signs that are often different from those at home and risk causing accidents involving bicycles or motorbikes when turning left.

    With the number of foreign visitors topping 30 million in 2018, their use of rental cars has jumped in recent years. About 1.41 million foreign visitors rented cars before their departure from airport in 2017, eight times higher than 2011 when the figure stood at 179,000, the transport ministry said.

    This sudden leap in the number of international drivers has been linked to a rise in accidents resulting in death or injury, with those primarily caused by foreign visitors up from 25 in 2011 to 123 in 2017, according to the Institute for Traffic Accident Research and Data Analysis.

    Last September, two yellow warning signs saying "Slow Down" in Chinese and Korean, respectively, were set up in front of a long downward slope on an expressway in southwestern Japan -- a section in which many foreign visitors tend to break hard.

    In the southern Japan island prefecture of Okinawa, the National Institute of Technology Okinawa College has developed a driver-assistance system that instantaneously translates Japanese road signs into other languages.

    The system is connected to a camera placed on the wing mirror of the vehicle and automatically shows the road sign translations on a screen in the dashboard. It can also provide voice warnings in English, Chinese and Korean when the car approaches intersections known for accidents.

    "I hope the use of this driver-assistance system leads to safer driving," said Sumika Uehara, a 16-year-old student of the college. "I'd like visitors to bring home only happy memories from their trip." The school is aiming to put the system into commercial use.

    On Japan's northernmost main island, the Hokkaido Regional Development Bureau has been distributing free booklets online in seven languages, including English and German, with explanations on Japan's road regulations.

    For example, there are illustrations on how to view traffic signals and rules explaining that vehicles going straight or turning left have the right of way.

    In Tokyo, the All Japan Rent-A-Car Association is planning to develop a smartphone app on driving etiquette.

    The Kyushu District Transport Bureau, the transport ministry's branch in the southwestern Japan region, has also been handing out magnetic stickers for international drivers that can be placed on the rear of cars to show the driver is not Japanese.

    "We're asking local Japanese drivers to take precautions including keeping a safe distance between cars," an official of the bureau said of the stickers.

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