Japanese driving courtesy

Can Courtesy Keep You Safe On The Road?

Courtesy is a hallmark of Japanese culture. It’s hard to think of Japan without the vision of hyper-polite citizens bowing to each other. One theory of Japanese etiquette is that it developed long ago to deal with the problems of a very large population living and working in a very small country. Along with courtesy, there’s also a strict adherence to society’s rules. This led me to wonder if Japanese courtesy and adherence to the rules extended to the roadways and how Japanese drivers compare with those in the US.

Japan is a tiny country. Japan’s 145,925 square miles – slightly smaller than Montana – make up less than four percent of the total land area in the US. In order to compare the two countries, we have to look at population density. The US with its wide open spaces has a population density of only 88.6 people per square mile. Japan’s population density, by contrast, is 873.1 people per square mile. That makes for very crowded conditions.

Out of all the nations in the world, the US has the greatest number of registered vehicles on the road. That may not come as a great surprise but the country with the second greatest number of registered vehicles is Japan. The US has 846.2 registered vehicles per 1,000 people followed by Japan with 650.9 vehicles per 1,000 people. Not only is Japan a crowded country, their roads are crowded too.

With that many vehicles in such a small space, you might think that Japan would have a high roadway death rate but that isn’t the case. When comparing the highway fatality rate of the two nations, the figures look like this:


Fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants

Fatalities per 10,000 vehicles







According to The International Transportation Forum, in 2012, the total highway fatality rate in  each country was:


Total fatalities

Percent change from 2011







*Out of all the highway deaths in Japan, 36% were pedestrians.

When you think of the US, you tend to think of a fast paced life style but Japan’s society is every bit as fast paced, if not more so.

When comparing speeding between the two countries:

  • In the US in 2012 speeding was responsible for 30% of all fatalities with 10,219 lives lost in speed related crashes; an increase of two percent over 2011.
  • In Japan, between 2002 and 2012, the number of crashes outside the motorway network involving speeds above 100 km/h (62 mph) decreased by 82%.

Could it be that the Japanese sense of courtesy and adherence to societal rules is responsible for the large difference in highway death rates? If Americans were just as courteous and law abiding on the roads, could we drastically reduce our highway death rates? There’s only one way to find out.