Pioneering Researcher in Preventing Serious Bicycle Accidents, an Increasing Problem in Society Today
Traffic accidents involving automobiles have been on the decline as safety technologies have improved and traffic safety education has become widespread. However, though absolute numbers are down, serious accidents involving bicycles have increased. These include cases of pedestrians being killed or left with a serious disability, and large compensation payments being made. We talked with Associate Professor Mio Suzuki, a pioneer in this field, about what can be done to better prevent accidents caused by bicycles.
Interviewer: Masayoshi Nakane
Interdisciplinary Science & Humanities Research to Improve Bicycle Safety
Question: Bicycle accidents have become a society-wide problem in recent years. I’d first like to ask, why did you originally get involved in research on traffic safety focusing on bicycles?
Answer: Bicycles speeding down the sidewalk is really frightening, so I thought, can’t something be done about this? That was the beginning of my interest. When I first started my research in around 2005 or 2006, there was literally no one researching bicycle accidents, which meant I would be the field’s trailblazer.
Initially, I did a lot of engineering analysis on the design of road structures for safety, but when it came to how to actually utilize the research, how to have people follow the rules, and how to raise awareness, I began collaborating more with specialists in psychology and education. I also worked with specialists in things like scenery.
Q: It certainly seems to be a field that gathers together specialists in various fields and combines both science and the humanities. Compared to the 1970s, accidents themselves have decreased quite a bit, and bicycle accidents have also decreased in terms of sheer numbers. What are some of the traffic safety measures that have drawn attention recently?
A: One reason given for the decrease in bicycle accidents is that bicycles now travel on the roads. In fact, accidents have decreased in regions where bicyclists are made to ride on the roads. Almost all collisions between cars and bicycles occur because the driver did not notice the bicycle. When bicycles travel on the road, drivers can see them clearly, so they are overlooked less often. In Japan, since around 2006, communities marking off bicycle lanes on the road have been increasing, and since 2012, the central government has promoted better visibility for drivers by creating guidelines. Accidents have decreased as a result.
Safety Education Important for Both Drivers and Pedestrians
Q: Tailgating, road rage, and accidents involving senior drivers have come to our attention in recent years, often being featured in the media. What are some of the issues involved in thinking about traffic safety?
A: One of the next themes I want to take up in my research is the vagueness of the rules. Bicycles may violate the rules, but the rules aren’t enforced. Cars can be going over the speed limit and not get pulled over. Rules are currently a matter of personal discretion. In Japan, if you cross a crosswalk even though the signal is red and get hit by a car, it is the driver’s fault. Pedestrians as a result are less aware of the need to follow the rules. As a consequence, bicycles also do not follow the rules; there seems to be no end to this.
Q: Traffic safety education in Japan focuses on what you are supposed to do, not necessarily on how you are supposed to behave towards others, correct?
A: Yes, that’s right. There’s not much emphasis on yielding to one another, so when something happens all of a sudden, it becomes difficult to make a quick decision. There is almost no education for pedestrians in Japan, so it’s only drivers who know the rules; pedestrians do not—this is the situation. Unless drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians and everyone else really understand the rules, it will be difficult to make further progress.
Associate Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, School of Engineering
Prof. Suzuki was born in Tokyo in 1977. After graduating from the Department of Applied Physics and Physico-Informatics at Keio University’s Faculty of Science and Technology, she completed a doctorate degree program in the Department of Built Environment at Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Interdisciplinary Graduate School of Science and Engineering and earned a PhD in engineering. She then worked as a research fellow in the transportation policy unit of the Japan Transport and Tourism Research Institute before being appointed to her current position at the university in April 2018. Prof. Suzuki specializes in traffic engineering and planning. She was selected as one of “120 Women Representing Japan” by Bungeishunju magazine in its March 2015 issue.