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By Mike Lloret

Head out on the Highway

After 40 years, Japan is letting motorcyclists carry passengers

Mike Lloret works in HR for a large Japanese electronics group, has lived in Japan since 1970, and has been riding motorcycles since 1964

This spring, motorcyclists in Japan
have once again begun to enjoy riding on expressways with a passenger in tandem. Yes, there are qualifiers. Nevertheless, I and most of my fellow bikers are extremely happy even with this limited victory. We’ve been waiting for a long time.

The first of Japan’s highways to be completed was the Meishin Expressway linking Nagoya to Kobe in 1965. In 1969, the Tomei Expressway, joining Nagoya and Tokyo, was finished. (Old-timers might say that the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway was done first, but by 1965 only parts of it were in use, and it wasn’t linked to the Tomei until late 1971. It’s still a work in progress, actually.) For motorcyclists wanting to carry a passenger, however, riding on the expressways was no longer an option after the 1965 Road Traffic Law was revised because of so many fatal accidents involving tandem riding on these roads.

Since the prohibition, Japan’s network of expressways has expanded dramatically, bringing many areas of the country into practical range of motorists. But for us bike riders, it has been—for nearly 40 years—a solitary ride. If you wanted to carry a passenger along on a motorcycle trip, you got a sidecar-equipped bike or you traveled the congested, stop-light-festooned ordinary roads. Now, thanks to at least a decade of pressure from foreign governments and motorcycle manufacturers both foreign and domestic, that has changed…somewhat.

The Japanese government announced late last year that, as part of the revised Road Traffic Law enacted in June, motorcyclists aged 20 or older who have held a license for more than three years would be allowed to ride double on certain expressways starting April 1. It did indeed happen: Television news carried interviews with several happy motorcyclists that evening.

That’s the good news, and for me and many or most of my fellow bikers, it’s very good news indeed. The bad—or at least not good—news is that prefectural public safety commissions can, for safety reasons, ban motorcyclists carrying passengers on certain expressways. Some of these commissions are still considering whether to allow tandem riding on “their” expressways.

Some reasons that they might use in favor of the ban are that it is more difficult to balance while tandem riding; that driving continuously at high speed on expressways increases the danger of carrying passengers; and that the conditions of Japanese expressways are different from those in the US or Europe, since they have many curves, limited visibility, narrow lanes and minimal shoulders.

The arguments against the long-standing ban have been, among others, that it forced motorcyclists off expressways and onto more hazardous ordinary roads; that drivers tend to drive more safely and carefully when riding tandem; that motorcycles have vastly improved since the ’60s and ’70s and are now built to run safely at high speed on expressways; that age, occupation, education and income level statistics indicate Japanese owners of large motorcycles are socially aware and responsible; that the prohibition was not in line with international standards; and that the National Police Agency had failed to show any objective proof regarding safety. The ban, according to opponents, not only limited sales of large motorcycles in the Japanese market, but actually lowered the overall safety of Japanese expressways.

I’m not sure whether I buy into the last argument. To make a significant safety difference, it seems that many of the erstwhile solo riders would have to become tandem riders and that they would have to become more careful riders because of it. That’s possible, but I wouldn’t place any large bets on it. I’m of the opinion, shared by many of my biker friends, that motorcyclist deaths—both of drivers and passengers—might very well decrease because, in general, it’s safer riding a bike on the expressway than on ordinary roads. This is especially true for long distance trips.

I’ve been a very careful rider for over 40 years—the last 35 in Japan—and I regularly ride on both expressways and ordinary roads. For a long run with or without a passenger, I’d choose the expressway without hesitation. A trip from my office in Mita to Yokohama, for instance, could very easily take two or three times as long on the Daichi Keihin/Route 15 as it would using the Metropolitan Expressway. And it would involve countless encounters with illegally parked vehicles taking up a lane of traffic, intersections with poor visibility, taxis pulling into traffic without signaling, drivers running red lights, innumerable stops, pedestrians, and bicyclists. That’s not to mention the overall miserable condition of the road surface, from a combination of badly finished construction jobs to overly heavy vehicles turning the ride into a long succession of bumps, gullies and potholes.

I’m really looking forward to riding faster, and safer.



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