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Driving Differences Between Nations

January 3rd, 2008

Well, we’re back from Japan. I just took a little scoot down to the supermarket, and that reminded me of the times I thought of blogging on driving between the two countries.

One thing you might know from reading my blog is the disrespect I have for Japanese traffic police, and the way traffic is managed in this country. Traffic lights are often set up to alternate red and green every other light, causing traffic to stop and idle unnecessarily–with the light switching to red usually just as cars arrive at the intersection. I can’t say how many times I have been caught by a red light just as I arrive, and see no traffic come from the cross street–only to see several cars arrive on the cross street just as it turns red for them.

In the U.S., at least in my hometown, sensors are used extensively, buried under the road at most intersections, including probably all major ones. If no traffic is at a cross street, the light will turn early. Turn lanes detect when the lane goes empty and lets straight traffic through. At night, some lights remain open for the major traffic route unless a vehicle trips the magnet the other way–meaning that traffic moves as efficiently as possible. For all I hear American drivers complain, traffic lights in the U.S. are done so that traffic runs far more smoothly than in Japan. Yes, one does get tired of all the speed bumps, but that’s a small price to pay. And there are more stop signs in the U.S. (I recall seeing few if any 4-way stop signs in Japan), but that strikes me as a safer way of managing things.

Then there are the speed limits. For the past year here in Japan, I have been mentei. That means that I got enough traffic citations that I exceeded the allowed number of points. Six points means you’re mentei–damned easy to do, as 13 mph (20 kph) over the speed limit here is two points off (regardless of the base speed limit). 16 mph (25 kph) over and it’s three points. You even get points for minor parking offenses. Worse, you get punished for living near the countryside areas. Speed traps are rare or non-existent in city areas; with a few exceptions, you can speed comfortably in the city. It’s when you come to the isolated, two-lane countryside road with little traffic, long and straight stretches with no pedestrians and few cross streets–that’s where you get the tickets.

Part of it is the ludicrous speed limits they set. In the U.S., less than a week ago, I was driving down such a road between Los Gatos and Saratoga; the speed limit was 50 mph (80 kph), a speed reserved in Japan only for toll expressways. In Japan, roads like the one I drove down in the U.S. have a speed limit of 25 mph (40 kph). Virtually everybody “speeds” on those roads (you feel downright stupid going 25 mph on such a road) and it is perfectly safe–so naturally, that’s where the Japanese police set up their speed traps. Live in the countryside, you’re bound to have a worse driving record. On more than one occasion, I drove just over 38 mph (60 kph) on such roads, and got ticketed. Two points per.

The thing is, those points stay on your record if you get more points within a certain time period. They can stay on for as long as a year each time you get a new ticket. In other words, you get caught speeding in June, and then again May the next year, both citations stay on your record for a full year after the last ticket. After one and a half decades of driving without going mentei, I finally “hit the jackpot” last year. Not because I was driving dangerously, but because I passed through one too many speed traps.

So I had the choice of taking a test (Japanese only) or losing my license for 30 days. As chance had it, those 30 days were to encompass a period during which I would be in the U.S. (driving, no less!) for almost three weeks. So I took the 30 days.

After that, you have to stay ticket-free for one year, lest the prior tickets remain to be held against you. During that time, the limit for going mentei is lowered to four points, with violation of that leading to 60 days suspension. My one-year period ends in the next day or two; I have been ticket-free for that year. Had I gotten a ticket today, I would have had to wait another year for those points to disappear and to get out of the danger zone. Another ticket in December 2008 would kick me into the next level of mentei.

Fortunately, as I mentioned, I have remained ticket-free for the past year. Which is not to say that I drove more safely–I had been driving safely when I went mentei. What I had to do was to follow the rules, which often have little to do with actual safety. Also, the fact that I moved to the inner city made things much easier–I had to worry about parking, yes (not easy since starting this year, they went ultra-fascist on parking, focusing primarily, as always, on scooters), but I hardly had to worry about moving violations at all.

If I make it without a ticket for the next day or two, then I am back at the starting point, with my slate clean; like everyone else, I will have the six-point limit. However, I will be punished next license-renewal time. If you have tickets on your license, you have to pay more fees and sit through hours and hours of insipid “driving safety” lectures which–like everything else in the Japanese traffic “safety” system, have nothing whatsoever to do with actual safety. The last lecture I sat through, to the best of my ability to understand, did not include a single explanation of a safety rule. It came across as more of a way of bureaucratically slapping you around for being such a baaad boy or girl, for falling into that speed trap.

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