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Recent high-profile pedestrian fatalities expose Japan's road safety failings

A diagram of the car accident that killed two children in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, on May 8, 2019.

TOKYO -- With road accidents involving pedestrian fatalities grabbing recent headlines with alarming regularity, including the deaths of two toddlers in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture on May 8, which could have been prevented by increased road safety provisions for pedestrians and drivers, focus has begun to shift to measures that could avoid repeat incidents.

Shunichi Kuryu, commissioner general of the National Police Agency (NPA), addressed the recent spate of incidents at a May 9 press conference. "Compared to other countries, the proportion of pedestrians in Japan dying in accidents is high," he said, adding that his agency was planning to promote safety measures in conjunction with relevant bodies, such as installing guardrails for walking routes to schools.

According to the NPA's analysis of data from traffic accidents in multiple countries between 2016 and 2018, about 36% of fatalities in Japan are pedestrians. The corresponding figure for the U.K. is roughly 25%, with the United States and France at some 16%, and Germany down to around 15%.

Yasumi Ito, a professor in safety and medical engineering at the University of Yamanashi and a former car accident researcher at the National Research Institute of Police Science spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun. Placing the state of Japan's roads in a historical context, he said: "In the lead up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, priority was given to making roads that cars could drive through easily, rather than pedestrian safety." His research showed that since then, safety measures such as introducing guardrails or creating routes that are harder for cars to speed in have not been widely adopted.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism set standards for installing guardrails and other barriers, including the danger to pedestrians being high. However, due to variance in road widths, features on the sides of roads and volume of traffic, the ministry says it is difficult to introduce a universal standard for railings including guardrails.

On their decision to leave the installation of railings to local government road administrators, the ministry said, "If railings are installed under a uniform rule, sidewalks may become inconvenient for wheelchair users or visually impaired residents who use tactile paving. All we can do is to make a comprehensive judgment based on the transportation situation in a local area."

In response to a car accident in Kameoka, Kyoto Prefecture, which killed a pregnant mother and two children walking to school in April 2012, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology carried out emergency inspections of school pedestrian routes nationally. The ministry's survey identified 74,483 potentially dangerous spots including traffic crossings and areas without guardrails.

By the end of March 2018, about 97% of the routes had been altered or had roadsides widened, but issues such as difficulties purchasing land to improve routes left some problem areas unresolved. Furthermore, kindergarten and day care center routes not covered by existing school ones were not included in the survey.

Police said in 2018 there were 130 fatal traffic accidents caused by a collision with an oncoming car when attempting to execute a right-hand turn. In a notable number of cases, drivers started to turn thinking another car wasn't coming.

Professor Ito believes more can be done to support drivers. "There are many instances at crowded junctions where people turn out of impatience," he said. Technology to extend the duration of green lights by detecting right-turning vehicles with sensors is also available. "If drivers felt confident they could make the turn by following the lights, they would be able to drive with fewer risks," he said, while stressing the best solution was both. "It would be effective if traffic light technology and drivers' awareness toward safety was combined with an increase in barriers like guardrails."

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Sasaki, Yuki Yamamoto, Atsushi Matsumoto and Kenichi Mito, City News Department)

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