Trying to Drive in Japan #2

Japanese traffic lightsJapan, like most developed countries, has so many laws and rules to abide by that I find it all quite suffocating. I previously wrote about the ridiculous number of traffic lights in Japan, and since I’m driving for an hour and a half every day I can’t help but get frustrated, and a frustrated driver is not a safe driver.

So let me get this straight. Traffic lights are there to prevent accidents, right? But too many traffic lights cause road rage and therefore, more accidents. It sounds like we’ll come full circle so let’s just scrap all the lights completely and take some responsibility for our own actions, without City Hall acting all over-protective.

This is the kind of thing that runs through my head as I sit at the lights. These are the same lights I hit everyday. They are always red when I get to them. I swear they are timed to turn red just as the traffic from the previous set of lights reaches them. There are no cars coming from the left and no cars coming from the right. I can see a good mile in either direction because there’s nothing but rice fields along this road. Do I really need to be told when it’s safe to go? Can’t I make that decision for myself?

While city officials will argue that traffic lights save lives, I would have thought a few pavements would save more. With all its narrow streets, pedestrians are forced to walk on the roads, and barely a week passes without someone getting run down by a car.

Driving to work in Japan is a horrible experience. On a day free of traffic jams, you could either arrive 15 minutes early or 15 minutes late depending on the lights. Even if you accept you have no control over what time you’ll arrive, you’ll still have to put up with the maniacs that race to beat each signal before it turns red. Did I mention that an amber light in Japan means “put your foot down or you won’t make it”?

I’ve just been explaining this all to Mami and she finds my opinions ever so amusing. Fortunately, as I argue in favor of scrapping traffic lights, I have some European traffic planners in my corner:

European traffic planners are dreaming of streets free of rules and directives. They want drivers and pedestrians to interact in a free and humane way, as brethren — by means of friendly gestures, nods of the head and eye contact, without the harassment of prohibitions, restrictions and warning signs.

That quote is from a great article called European Cities Do Away with Traffic Signs. In it, they talk about Drachten, a small town in the Netherlands that has done away with nearly all its traffic lights and has seen a decrease in the number of accidents.

Strange as it may seem, the number of accidents has declined dramatically. Experts from Argentina and the United States have visited Drachten. Even London has expressed an interest in this new example of automobile anarchy. And the model is being tested in the British capital’s Kensington neighborhood.

Could cities in Japan follow Drachten’s lead? Oh, how I wish!

3 comments

  1. Mike

    Yeah I totally understand you here Nick! What I don’t get is when Japanese people call the green light a blue light… It’s green, not blue! But they call it blue.. why is this? Do you know?

    • Nick Ramsay

      No, I don’t know, and neither do they! Isn’t it like calling a tomato a vegetable even though it’s technically a fruit? Anyway, I think we can all agree that it means “Go!” regardless of the color. Heck, you can call it pink for all I care, as long as it’s not red! 😉

  2. ジェイソン (Jason)

    The lights do seem poorly timed in Japan, which is something I’ll need to calmly accept while rushing to make the train to Nagoya everyday. I don’t think it would be wise to scrap all lights, though, as many Japanese drivers have very poor understandings of 4-way stops and proper merge techniques. Instead, I’d like to see the Japanese make more use of traffic sensors (they’re everywhere in Canada) to determine when to change the light.

    Red lights really only need to be used to control the speed of drivers (but not at *every* darned intersection) and to ensure a smooth flow of traffic at busy intersections.