Regional Revitalization or Roadway Risk? The Hidden Dangers of Electric Kick Scooter Deregulation | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Regional Revitalization or Roadway Risk? The Hidden Dangers of Electric Kick Scooter Deregulation

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Police officers handing out flyers to electric kickboard users

In recent years, the reckless riding of bicycles has become a significant issue, leading to the implementation of laws allowing the issuance of violation tickets. However, a new type of vehicle is now drawing even more concern than bicycles: the ‘electric kick scooter.’

These scooters zip down sidewalks, ignoring pedestrians, frequently run red lights, and some users even wait in the right-turn lanes at intersections. They dominate major roads, not only obstructing the flow of traffic but also causing accidents involving pedestrians.

Many people wonder why, just as scrutiny on bicycle behavior intensified, these problematic vehicles have suddenly proliferated in our streets.

“Originally, electric kick scooters are a product name or common term for specific small motorized bicycles. They are essentially kick scooters, originally popular as children’s toys, equipped with electric motors to enable self-propulsion,” explains a national newspaper reporter.

In the early 2000s, during the kick scooter boom, numerous motorized electric kick scooters were imported.

At that time, Japanese law required vehicles capable of self-propulsion to be registered and their drivers to hold a license if they were to be used on public roads. However, some retailers marketed these scooters as license not required and road legal, leading many users to believe they could legally ride on sidewalks and roads.

“Electric kick scooters with motorized or internal combustion engines were classified as either motorized bicycles or motor vehicles under both the Road Traffic Act and the Road Transport Vehicle Act. This meant a moped license was necessary. The scooters’ structure and specifications mandated that users obtain and carry a driver’s license and wear motorcycle helmets.

Sidewalks, road shoulders, bicycle paths, and bicycle lanes were off-limits. They were also subject to administrative penalties, including the system of neglected violation fines for offenses such as accidents and parking violations. Additionally, it was recommended to have voluntary automobile insurance,” says a representative from a scooter dealership.

Despite stringent regulations, traffic violations and accidents were rampant.

By July 2021, 18 traffic violations involving electric kick scooters had been recorded in Fukuoka Prefecture. In 2022, the first fatal accident in Japan occurred in Tokyo. The deceased man was not wearing a helmet and might have been driving under the influence.

Even when meeting seemingly reasonable standards, accidents and violations still occur frequently, suggesting the need for further measures.

Despite this, it’s surprising to see that regulations have actually been loosened. In 2023, the Road Traffic Act was revised, allowing some electric kick scooters to be classified as “specific small motorized bicycles,” which can be ridden by anyone aged 16 or older without a license.

Even the “Roller-Through GOGO,” which was a craze among children, was discontinued.

Engine-powered stand-up scooters, which became the prototype for electric kick scooters, were first released in the United States in the early 1900s and later independently developed in Japan.

Forty years ago, Japan’s automobile manufacturer, Honda Motor Co., Ltd., attempted to develop self-propelling kick scooters. Although the engine-powered version was never released, a kick scooter with a kick pedal was eventually produced.

Named “Roller-Through GOGO,” this “toy” saw production peak at 100,000 units per month and eventually reached a total production of one million units, becoming a massive hit. However, due to safety concerns, it was discontinued just two years after its release. Banna Yoshioka, a Honda Research Institute engineer involved in the development of the product, shared his insights.

“At that time, Honda’s design department, where I worked, was exploring various new products, including snowmobiles and three-wheeled ATVs. Inspired by the popular skateboards in the U.S., we developed the ‘Roller-Through GOGO’ after making several modifications.”

Although the “Roller-Through GOGO” was developed as a recreational item for children, prototypes with engines were also created. However, due to legal constraints, the engine-powered version was abandoned, and the product was finalized with a kick lever.

“It became a huge hit, and we even produced an adult version with a weight limit of up to 60 kg. However, in February 1976, a six-year-old kindergartener and in March of the same year, a three-year-old child were both killed in accidents involving trucks. These incidents led to newspapers labeling the scooter as dangerous, resulting in a complete halt in sales. Despite the product’s safety being proven, we ultimately decided to stop selling it,” said Yoshioka.

At that time, the media sensationalized the situation with headlines like “Death Roller-Through.” Despite such precedents, accidents continue to occur frequently, and users persistently violate traffic laws. One has to wonder why electric kick scooters are being allowed to proliferate unchecked. While regulations have tightened overseas, Japan is moving in the opposite direction, loosening restrictions. I can’t be the only one who finds this suspicious.

“The rules have not permeated society, creating an environment where they are easily overlooked.”

Attorney Yuka Koto from the law firm Hibiki, who specializes in traffic issues, explains the reasons behind the regulatory easing:

“It is said that the goal is to facilitate regional revitalization by creating a convenient and eco-friendly mode of transportation that complements public transportation such as trains and buses, thus easing the movement of tourists and local residents.”

However, she also points out the issues:

“Specific small motorized bicycles, which can be allowed to ride on sidewalks under certain conditions, occupy a middle ground between bicycles and motorcycles. This creates an appearance of rule adherence whether they are on sidewalks or roads. However, since society hasn’t fully grasped what types of vehicles are allowed and under what rules they operate, it creates an environment where rule violations are easily overlooked.

For example, in Paris, which introduced electric kick scooter rental services around 2018 due to heightened environmental awareness, the service was discontinued in August 2023 due to a high incidence of traffic accidents.

Specific small motorized bicycles are considered vehicles under the Road Traffic Act, so they must comply with road signs, stop at stop signs, and perform two-stage right turns at intersections. Violations of these rules can lead to imprisonment or hefty fines. However, the image of ‘riding without a license’ precedes these rules, leading to a lack of compliance awareness among users.”

When asked about improvements and countermeasures, she suggests:

“First, it might be effective for national and local governments to restrict the types of vehicles that can be used as specific small motorized bicycles. This would facilitate vehicle maintenance and create an environment where users and pedestrians know how these vehicles should behave and can monitor accordingly.

Next, we need thorough awareness of the rules. Since students can ride without a license, integrating lectures on specific small motorized bicycles into high school curriculums could provide opportunities to learn about identifying safe vehicles and traffic rules, thereby promoting basic traffic rule awareness.”

Her concerns reflect those of many drivers who find electric kick scooters to be a nuisance when they share the road. Urgent measures are needed to prevent major accidents.

Mr. Banmei Yoshioka, the developer, and “Roller-Thru GOGO” (photo courtesy of Mr. Banmei Yoshioka)

Hibiki Lawyer Corporation official HP:

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  • Comment Yuka Furufuji (Attorney at Law, Hibiki)

    With the motto of "making the difficult world of law easy to understand," she handles a wide range of civil and criminal cases, including traffic accidents, consumer troubles, debts, divorce, inheritance, and labor problems, etc. She appears regularly on FM NACK5's "Shuhei Shimada and Yuka Furufuji no Kono Houhou Konnichiwa Tesho" and on news and information programs. He has also made numerous appearances on TV, newspapers, magazines, and other media.

  • Interviews and writings Hiroyuki Sasaki (Entertainment Journalist)

    Born in Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture. At the age of 31, he became a reporter for FRIDAY and has reported numerous scoops. Since then, he has been active mainly in weekly magazines. Currently he also appears on TV and radio as a commentator.

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