In 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.
All 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!