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80% of audible traffic signals for blind in Japan silenced to appease residents

An audible pedestrian signal is seen in Fukuoka's Minami Ward in November 2020. (Mainichi/Kimiya Tanabe)

FUKUOKA -- More than 80% of Japan's accessible pedestrian signals -- traffic lights that also emit sounds to let pedestrians with visual impairments know when it's safe to cross the road -- have their noise-making function disabled for at least part of the day, a Mainichi Shimbun survey of the country's 47 prefectural police forces has found.

    The survey revealed that many of the accessible signals, also called audible pedestrian signals, only emit sounds during daylight hours, often due to consideration for or complaints from residents. However, there have been serious accidents involving visually impaired pedestrians, including at least one death, during the times when the signals' noise function has been turned off.

    Associations representing people with impaired vision are calling on the central government to boost safety measures.

    All of Japan's prefectural police forces had responded to the survey by December 2020. The results showed that, as of the end of fiscal 2019, there were 208,152 traffic lights in Japan, of which only 24,367 were audible pedestrian signals. A total of 20,445, or 84% of these, were set not to make sounds for part of or even the entire day.

    Every audible signal was on a restricted schedule in the prefectures of Akita, Yamagata, Tochigi, Hyogo, Tokushima, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, and Okinawa. Meanwhile, only 30 to 40-odd-percent of the signals in Iwate, Miyagi and Kagawa prefectures were on limited schedules. According to the Japan Federation of the Visually Impaired (JFVI), many of the signals have their noise-making function shut off between 7 p.m. and 7 or 8 a.m.

    There was a total of 37 accessible signals in nine prefectures including Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Gunma that had their audible function turned off entirely. Asked why the signals had been disabled, police forces in Kochi and Kumamoto said residents complained they were noisy.

    Furthermore, though the law calls for making "daily life-related routes" -- roads connecting train stations, government offices, welfare facilities, hospitals, commercial complexes and the like -- barrier-free, the survey revealed that 6,189 audible traffic signals on these routes across Japan had time limitations.

    The survey also found that there had been at least 77 injurious or fatal traffic accidents involving visually impaired pedestrians since 2015. Twenty of them were at pedestrian crossings without audible signals, and at least two happened during hours when the local signal's audible function had been switched off.

    In one of these two cases, in December 2012 a visually impaired 64-year-old man was struck and killed by a car while crossing a street in Tokyo's Toshima Ward when he did not notice that the pedestrian light was red.

    "There aren't enough audible pedestrian signals to begin with, so it's very disappointing that even most of those on daily life-related routes are not in operation 24 hours a day," said JFVI section head Munemasa Sasaki. "There are people with disabilities who work overtime and go home late, and they (the authorities) are taking disabled people's activities in society too lightly. I'd like to see improvements before there's another accident."

    (Japanese original by Haruna Tasaki, Kyushu News Department)

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