Highway to Hell


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on May 2009

I don’t get out of Japan as much as I used to, but as far as I’m concerned, driving overseas is a zillion times more enjoyable than it is here. Why? Well here’s ten reasons.

1. Country roads. The most pleasurable thing about driving, for me, has always been cruising along a road less traveled in the British/American/Canadian/European countryside—there are few cars, no speed cameras and only beautiful scenery to look at. The Japanese countryside is polluted with ugly overhead cables, ugly villages and boring, boring roads.

2. Driving lessons. Getting a license in this country is ridiculously time-consuming and expensive. I know this because Mrs. Bonds is halfway through the process. There are, if I remember rightly, around 40 hours of driving lessons, 30 hours of classroom lessons and five tests to take. It will cost around ¥300,000. All this wouldn’t be so bad if Mrs. Bonds were actually learning how to drive—but in fact all that is just to learn how to pass the exams. After she’s got her license, I’ll have to teach her how to drive.

3. Truck drivers. When the missus finally does earn her license, she won’t get any help from truck drivers. In Japan, like many other countries, “might is right.” Truckers seem to think that they have the right of way on any stretch of road. This is most apparent on expressways, when they drive right up your rear to try and bully you into moving over.

Illustration by Shane Busato

Illustration by Shane Busato

4. Blinkers. Do driving schools teach you what those orange lights are for? Even if they don’t, just how stupid can the drivers of Japan be? You put your indicators on before you brake to show that you are about to turn. Every day, I see drivers brake, then indicate, and then turn. The dumbest thing in Japanese motoring.

5. Insurance. OK, we need insurance, but my insurance man just quoted me a rate that’s higher for my second car than my first car, which is worth three times as much. On top of that, he says that because my second car is so cheap, it’s not covered for damage. So I pay less to get more insurance for a more expensive car. What’s more, he can’t link the two cars’ insurance policies. Oh yes, and I’m not covered for theft. Eh?

6. Shaken/taxes. You must get your car tested three years after you bought it new, and every two years thereafter. A dealer will charge you in the region of ¥150,000 to do this (my local mechanic does it for half that). A car inspection program is good, but this isn’t it. And how many privately owned Japanese cars need to be inspected after three years? Almost none. It’s an unrealistic and unnecessary burden on the car owner.

7. Parking. You have to have a parking place before you can own a car in Japan. Maybe not such a stupid idea, but the street parking in cities is way out of hand. Enforcement has improved, but there are still too many cars blocking too many roads. On the other hand, you will get a ticket for parking in a metered spot after-hours. Well, if a spot is OK during busy hours, why can’t we use it when the roads aren’t busy? Doesn’t make sense.

8. Tolls. I hate tolls. Apart from being an inefficient system for collecting money, they are way too high. OK, PM Aso has reduced them temporarily. Well done, but no one should be charged for sitting in a 50km traffic jam. You should only have to pay for expressways if they do their job, i.e., getting you from A to B fast.

9. PC Plod. A cop caught me speeding last week. Was it fair? Well, yes, I was speeding, but it was on a coastal toll road with absolutely no traffic. Possibly the quietest, safest road in Japan. Penalizing me on that road will not contribute to road safety in any way; he was just making sure he got his quota for the month. The police too often go for the easy target while letting the loonies go free.

10. Old People, young people. Confucius says old people are the repositories of wisdom. No, stupid people only get stupider as they grow older. And young stupid people are just plain dangerous. Restrict what they can drive and keep death off the roads.