Bicycle rides are often seen as an eco-friendly way to get exercise, a quick and easy means to get to a nearby destination, or a relaxing outing for the family.
But cyclists unaware of the rules–and the tough punishment system for violators–could find that their leisurely ride has taken them to court or even prison.
„Bicycles are so common, but many users have insufficient knowledge about the traffic rules they should obey, resulting in malicious and dangerous ways of riding,“ an official of the National Police Agency said.
Police, in fact, are cracking down on reckless cyclists across the nation in response to the surging number of accidents involving bicycles and pedestrians.
According to the NPA, 599 cyclists were ticketed for criminal prosecution in violation of the Road Traffic Law between January and September. Some of the offenders were arrested.
The nine-month figure exceeded the full-year total of 585 in 2006, and was about five times the figure for 2003.
For minor traffic violations, motorists are given blue tickets. Offenders are exempted from criminal prosecution if they pay specified fines, although they will be imposed penalty points on their licenses.
For serious violations, they are arrested or given red tickets for criminal prosecution.
But the blue-ticket system for minor traffic violations does not include cyclists.
That means cyclists are automatically given red tickets for any violation and face criminal prosecution.
Their papers are sent to prosecutors and they are sentenced or receive summary orders at traffic courts.
Bicycle riders face a maximum sentence of three months in prison or a fine of up to 50,000 yen for failing to obey traffic signals or stop signs.
Drunken cyclists can be sentenced to five years in prison or fined a maximum 1 million yen.
Riding double on a bicycle can result in fine of up to 20,000 yen.
Of the 599 cyclists caught this year through September, 196 were accused of double riding or violating other regulations on loading capacity, accounting for the largest portion.
The number of offenders who ran red lights was the second largest at 156, followed by 110 who ignored stop signs.
Police warned or gave instructions in 1.34 million cases by the end of September, compared with the 2006 total of 1.45 million, double from three years earlier.
Police will typically hand red tickets to cyclists or arrest them if they ignore the instructions or warnings.
Of the 599 cyclists caught this year, 291 were under 20 years old.
An NPA official said the number of serious violations by junior and senior high school students was particularly high.
According to statistics compiled by the Institute for Traffic Accident Research and Data Analysis, cyclists aged 16 to 19 were blamed for about 20 percent of traffic accidents involving bicycles and pedestrians in 2006.
Bicycles are one of the most common means of transport in Japan, with more than 80 million bicycles in use.
The annual number of traffic accidents involving bicycles has remained between 170,000 and 180,000 in recent years.
Although the number of bicycle accidents with automobiles has been declining, the number of accidents between bicycles and pedestrians increased about fivefold over the 10 years until 2006, when 2,767 such accidents were reported.
The number of bicycle-pedestrian accidents stood at 2,021 this year through September.
While tightening crackdowns, the NPA is taking measures to improve the traffic environment for cyclists, including separate lanes for pedestrians and bicycles.
According to a survey by the Bicycling Popularization Association of Japan, more than 90 percent of respondents said they had felt „threatened“ by bicycles while walking on sidewalks.
A senior official of the association said malicious traffic law violations by cyclists had been left unchecked, leading to further recklessness among cyclists. „I hope that the police crackdowns, instructions and warnings will improve the manners of bicycle riders,“ the official said.
BY KUNIO KATSUMATA, THE ASAHI SHIMBUN