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Watch out for awful drivers in Okinawa

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22 May 2022
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The standard of driving in Okinawa is terrible. I moved here about 6 months ago from elsewhere in Japan and I have never seen such consistently bad/dangerous driving every day. People just seem to have no regard for basic road safety.

People don't use seatbelts, even for their own children. Every week I see half a dozen or more cars driving around with little kids jumping around the back seat or sitting on the driver's knees. According to a 2020 survey by JAF, only 30% of passengers wear seatbelts on the highway, and only 18% on regular roads in Okinawa.

People park absolutely anywhere they want. I've literally seen cars parked in the middle of roads, bus stops, blocking entrances etc., hazards on and left. I know drivers all over Japan watch TV while driving, but I think it's worse here. I see it fairly frequently on the highway, which is pretty terrifying.

Running red lights is normal, if people think there are no cameras/cops they will often go. More commonly they run the lights 4 or 5 seconds after they turn red. Be very careful when using a pedestrian crossing.

The speed limit is ignored. I get that Japanese speed limits are stupidly low but you also see it on narrow town roads with pedestrians around where it's more dangerous.

Drink driving is famously a problem in Okinawa. The highest rate in Japan.

Undertaking on two-lane roads. The practice of overtaking on the right is non-existent in Okinawa.

Just generally bad manoeuvring; turning without indicating, pulling out in front of moving traffic, not looking while reversing (I had to bang the back of a guy's car in a parking lot as he was about to reverse into me while I was walking).

People not putting seatbelts on their kids is the one that really gets me. How can parents be so irresponsible? They're literally risking their kids' lives out of laziness. I wish the police would take more serious action on this and some of the other more dangerous problems, but they seem pretty inactive.
Welcome to island life, @EW100 !

I can't say I noticed the same in the month I spent there in 2019 but I don't doubt it. Every day I biked from Naha to Haebaru and back, occasionally taking a bus and riding as a passenger in a car around the island a bit. As a passenger I didn't pay close attention to behavior on the road, but it seemed pretty relaxed and road rage-free. I've never driven myself in Japan though, and notice that my friends who do drive are often very critical of the local motorists. To me Japanese drivers can sometimes be overly timid and conscientious... and also the complete opposite, you never know which one you are going to run into.

I consider the "bad habits" like the old hazard-stop or shingō-mushi a matter of local custom (people copying each other until it's the norm) and lack of enforcement. As a teenager I got a seatbelt ticket once and since then I've drilled that habit into myself, with the help of some gruesome PSA campaigns. Now I get quite uncomfortable if I'm in a moving vehicle with no safety restraints; statistically the more time we spend in a car the greater chance we have of being in a nasty wreck, there's no need to tempt fate.

I think drunk driving is probably a combination of factors, like those I mentioned above but also a result of a lackluster public transportation system. Especially in Okinawa, the monorail is kinda not great and the bus systems were confusing because there were separate lines for inner city and inter-city travel; it was easier for me to bring a bicycle and get around on my own, and I was mostly just tooling around the southern part of the island, which is more developed. Overall I think there are a number of policy decisions that can help reduce drunk driving "upstream" of the decision to drink and drive. Improved public transportation options with extended hours, affordable alternatives to either give people a chance to sober up or get home safely like drunk shuttles. But the strongest factor in my opinion would be peer pressure. "Friends don't let friends drink and drive" kinda stuff.

I've spent more time on a bicycle than in a car in Japan, and aside from a few choice places there's very little cycling infrastructure which makes it a bit hard, but although the roads rarely accommodate a safe distance from vehicles I haven't had much reason to get angry, except about the emissions I'm always choking on. I really hate riding on the sidewalk and try to avoid it if possible, so I just have to keep my head on a swivel as I share the road.

Be the change you want to see in the world, and implore those around you to be safe and avoid unnecessary risks.
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