Daddy-san (part 5): Car Safety – the state of child seat use in Japan

Daddy-san Series - Childseat usage in JapanIn part three of this series, I wrote a bit about travelling with a baby in Japan on planes. The big form of transport that I didn’t mention was cars. I’d never felt the need for owning a car in Japan until I had a baby but recently I’ve been starting to think that it would be a nice addition to the family. Besides the fact that it would make bringing nappies home from the local supermarket a lot easier, it would make domestic travel just that little bit smoother. We’ve been able to get around a reasonable amount with a combination of rent-a-cars and taxis when we haven’t been able to use trains (or boats or planes), but the reality is that it is just not as safe or convenient as having your own car with a fitted baby seat.

We knew that we would be using a taxi every so often (coming home from the hospital, visiting the in-laws, etc) so bought one of those 5-in-one baby cars (ベビーカー, pram/stroller) that brushes your teeth and also turns into a car seat when we need to take our child in a car. It seemed like a great idea. We could save space by attaching the car seat to the frame to form a pram and yet still fit the frame easily in the back of a taxi. You attach the baby’s car seat to one of the back seats using the chest harness already in the taxi. So you’re thinking, most taxis in Japan don’t have a back seatbelt – well… that was the least of our problems. Generally if you hunt around the back seat you can find a seatbelt, what we didn’t budget for was the length of the seatbelts not being long enough. Yes. This is a seat for babies made and designed by a Japanese company to be used in Japan, yet there are actually many taxis that don’t have seatbelts long enough to attach it. My word of advice to you? Read the fine print on your car seat before you buy it. Ours required a minimum seatbelt length of 210cm. While you’ll be right with a new kojin taxi (個人タクシー, privately owned and operated taxi) in the big cities, you might not be so lucky in regional centres were the car models of taxis are a little bit older. Indeed, we had to wait a very long time (and say “No Thanks” to several empty taxis) in both Kyushu and Shikoku in order to find one that we could attach our safety seat to.

You can’t rely on taxi drivers to help (or understand) the issue as they will often say “not to worry” or ridiculous things like “you’ll be alright if you hold him in the back”. Somebody really needs to educate taxi drivers that it is actually illegal to take an infant (or any child up to the age of 6 for that matter) in a car without a child safety seat. For some reason it seems as though the broader population missed the passing of that law, not to mention the one requiring seatbelt usage for adults in the back seat, too, last year. The stats for child auto safety in Japan is quite eye opening. Perhaps it is because most Japanese are not regularly drivers but for some reason (tell me why!?) people just don’t seem to realise how dangerous a car can be.

A survey of nearly 13,000 people by JAF and the police (チャイルドシート使用状況全国調査全国調査) in 2007 found that less than half of parents used a baby seat for their child in their car and a whopping 11.5% felt that hugging their child was adequate protection in case of a car crash (in America this is known as the “child crusher position”). These numbers have gotten significantly better in the 2010 survey, where 56.8% of children under 6 were fastened in child seats, however a staggering 40+% were still “protected” using other means, such as the child crusher position.

Even amongst parents using child seats, only a scary 36.5% were able to fasten it correctly to their car seat (most of them had intentionally fitted it loosely and some had just placed it on top of the back seat! 2 out of 3 parents who own seats don’t even use it every time their child is in the car. The probability of your child dying when you don’t use a child seat is 4.3x higher than when you use one.

Japanese child in carAll of these ridiculous stats are in spite of the fact that it was made compulsory for children under the age of 6 to use child-seats in cars way back in 2000 (道路交通法第71条の3). That said Japan has got to be the only country in the world that has an official exception to this law stating that children who are in the middle of every-day baby related activities (ie. Feeding, nappy changing, etc) are exempt from this law. How ridiculous is that? Surely you can stop the car in order to change your kid’s nappies!? Surely you’d want to! I mean, think of the mess if you did crash with a crappy nappy lying on the back seat because you hadn’t finished changing your child yet. yuck..

In order to be able to use our car seat in a variety of different cars and taxis, I went to several auto-shops to see if I could purchase a seatbelt extender. The idea is that you attach the male and female parts of a seatbelt to a short piece of seatbelt that you can plug into both parts of the seatbelt in order to add a few inches of length to the belt. No matter how many shops I tried, the answer was the same. They don’t exist in Japan. (I’ve seen them overseas and they are normally used by over-weight people to help them lock their seatbelt.) By my third visit, I found a man who was quite clued up to the Japanese auto-laws. Apparently there is a clause in the Japanese seatbelt laws that states that obese people are exempt from wearing a seatbelt and hence there is no need for such a seatbelt extension in Japan. After all if it isn’t required by law, who would want one? Damn it. How much more obvious could it be that the government is enforcing these rules in order to help us and that seatbelts protect our lives. And yes, while we’re at it, there is a safe way for pregnant women to attach a seatbelt so there is no reason why they shouldn’t wear one either! In case you haven’t noticed, I have had this discussion with many Japanese taxi drivers but every time it has been in vain. I’d love some advice on this matter. How do you rebut the comeback “don’t worry I’ve never had an accident before” or better yet “but the customer looks so uncomfortable with that tight seatbelt on”.

Do you have any seat belt in Japan stories? Tell us in the comments!

9 thoughts on “Daddy-san (part 5): Car Safety – the state of child seat use in Japan”

  1. You don’t rebut it, you pull your arrogant know-it-all nose out of their business and let them live their lives how they want. Japan isn’t a nanny state like england.

  2. Come on, what you are proposing is completely impractical for life in Tokyo. In the UK, sure, you get around by car a lot more because of the shyte state of public transport for one thing. But in Tokyo you are in all probability not going to use one for more than a short trip if it’s by taxi (unless you’re loaded). OK the guy says he hasn’t had an accident before. It’s up to you to call his bluff but then, with all your one-sided statistics, tell us this: what are the actual stats for children being hurt or killed in a taxi accident in Tokyo or elsewhere for that matter?
    I have a car but I don’t buckle my 4-year old in every time I drive him 5 minutes to the kindergarten (averaging what 15km/h along backstreets?) I mean, put things in perspective. Say you walk to kindergarten. Many Tokyo streets have no pavements so pedestrians are only “separated” from the traffic by just a white-painted line. Or you cycle? Don’t you find that many mothers (and it is mostly mothers) take their kids to school on a bicycle with add-on child-seat either hooked to the handlebar or bolted on to the rear rack? You might want some accident statistics on this mode of transport too.
    If the prospect of your kid being hurt in a car accident on a short trip scares you, you frankly must be very uncomfortable living in Japan.

  3. Jeff, are you advocating that it is not necessary to buckle a child for short trips or that parents who don’t feel like doing it should be let off the hook? Floor you brake pedal at 15km/h and see if your child stays in his seat. Or wait until another car, probably a taxi, collides with you at double or more of your 15km/h “safe” speed. I for sure would not like to be your son. Parents have a responsibility to protect their kids and reduce risks to them. If I have to buckle my child in, whether government mandated or not, I will choose to do it, not for myself, but for my child. There are many times I thought “It’s just a short trip”, but I still buckled my child. It is too easy to be lazy with your child’s wellbeing.

    Also, you didn’t offer up anything to counter “all your one-sided statistics” for taxis. Here you go – some more one-sided stats. Taxis are involved in accidents 8 times more that standard passenger cars. (http://goo.gl/ax9vt) That’s because they are on the roads more, you say. True but, on a million km comparison (http://goo.gl/1CvTb), there are 1.704 taxi accidents compared to 1.195 for all other vehicles. When you consider how few taxis there are compared to other vehicles, it does not seem unreasonable to claim that you take your chances in a taxi.

    You seem to like statistics. Here are some more. Death from not wearing seatbelts, including child restraints, is 14 times higher and the likelihood of being thrown out of the vehicle is 33 times compared to buckling up. (National Police Agency) http://goo.gl/k3bN4 and http://goo.gl/VyPL0).  In Tokyo, of all traffic accident related deaths, 60% of deaths are in vehicle accidents, 20% bicycle, 12% motorbike, 7% pedestrian and 1% other (http://goo.gl/rehzL). That is, most people die in car accidents. Not being required to use a child restraint in a taxi doesn’t mean it is any safer. It is just an indication how much value is put on child safety by the driver, the government and ultimately – you.

    Still think buckling up is “Completely impractical for life in Tokyo”? It is completely practical if you want you and your child to HAVE a life in Tokyo or any other place in the world, even if it is for a short 5 min. trip or in a taxi.

  4. I am interested to hear more about what kinds of child seats are necessary through what ages. Surely 6 year olds don’t need to be in what we classically know as a baby seat? When can they change to a more appropriate safety seat?

    Any info. would be greatly appreciated.

  5. David,
    Here is a good summary (although in Japanese) put out by the Kanagawa police:
    http://www.police.pref.kanagawa.jp/mes/mesf2012.htm
    Essentially there are 3 types of seats:
    infant seat: (ages 0-1)
    toddler seat: (ages 1-4)
    child seat: (ages 4-10)
    If you drop by your local shopping center (Aeon has a good range) and check out their seats they will have a chart explaining which you can use for how long. The best thing you can get is one that doubles as a toddler and child seat so you don’t have to buy two.

  6. I am in shock daily seeing moms using baby carriers and driving with their baby strapped to their back or front. I rarely see kids seated and using a seatbelt. Had a Japanese mom comment that my kids were so great to be able to use car seats, as if I asked them, it’s not a choice to protect my kids. Japanese seems to think they will not get into an accident, even in Aichi which has the most traffic accidents every year. I have even seen a dad with his baby on his back and his two year sitting in front of him on a scooter. Makes me sick to my stomach. I have made comments before to moms, but they just don’t seem to get it. What can we do?

  7. First off, may I just say, Tom and Jeff, I hope your children survive your “life in Tokyo” without carseats or safety belts. Anyways, the topic has been brought to my attention as well and I am currently in the process of creating seminars for new parents, schools, and hospitals on the issue. In doing my research I have come across horrifying stories regarding moms in Japan and the lack of safety for their children. One in which a girl has been paralyzed from the neck down due to her parents not requiring her to be in a child restraint. The point is, If you want your child to be safe, even if you never get in an accident, the chances of it happening to you are very very real. Take the precautions, otherwise pay the consequences when the chance rolls your way. Protect your children. Spread the word until it is heard.

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