As Tokyo roads empty, speeding cars turn into deadly menace

TOKYO — Though Tokyo’s streets are virtually empty, fatal car accidents are up.

Both drivers and pedestrians seem to be flouting traffic rules as road traffic disappeared upon the government’s stay-at-home request, leading to higher instances of serious accidents.

One accident on the evening of April 14 illustrates is a case in point.

A vehicle traveling on an expressway in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward fatally struck a 90-year-old woman at a traffic stop. The driver failed to slow down when the traffic light turned yellow, and the pedestrian apparently started to cross the six-lane expressway before her light turned green. The crosswalk offered a clear view of traffic from either side.

“An accident wouldn’t happen here if you’d pay attention to your surroundings,” said a man who lives in the area.

Traffic in Tokyo’s 23 wards plunged after Gov. Yuriko Koike on March 25 urged residents to remain indoors. That month, hourly congestion on Tokyo’s public roads, measured by distances plagued by slow traffic, was down 15% on the year to 78.4 km, and was down 42% on Sunday. 

Traffic accidents overall also declined. The 1,978 accidents in Tokyo from March 25 to the end of April represent a 40% drop from a year earlier.

Yet 14 people died in traffic accidents during that span, up from 12 in the year-earlier period. The 48 deaths over the first four months of 2020 mark a 17% increase on the year.

“I believe the serious accidents are linked to drivers who unwittingly speed up on empty roads,” said a senior official at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police.

A 76-year-old cyclist was struck and killed by a vehicle at this intersection in the Tokyo suburb of Fuchu last month. (Photo by Shimpei Nakamura)

Tokyo police handled 6,176 speeding violations in March, a 52% jump from a year earlier. Cases of failure to stop at intersections rose 25%.

Cyclists are also turning reckless. On April 21, a cyclist failed to push the traffic button before crossing a street in Fuchu, a Tokyo inner-ring suburb. The 76-year-old man died after being struck by a vehicle.

A similar pattern appears outside of Tokyo. Aichi Prefecture in central Japan recorded 55 traffic deaths this year through April, up from 43 for the same period in 2019.

“Traffic congestion has eased, and vehicles are speeding up,” said a senior official for the prefectural police.

Kazumi Renge, president of Tezukayama University in Nara and professor of traffic psychology, urges people to remain alert even on familiar roads.

“Vehicle traffic has declined due to self-isolation, but school closures and telecommuting have had the effect of increasing the number of pedestrians in residential neighborhoods, which has transformed the usual environment,” Renge said.

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