Driving in Japan v. driving in the US

I learned how to drive in Japan. I went to Hinomaru Driving School in Meguro, where we were required to take something like 30 hours of driving and 30 hours of classroom work. By the end of it, I had memorized all the road rules in Japan, but driving with a super scary instructor as my passenger didn’t make me very good at handling a car. It wasn’t until I almost crashed my Honda Legend twice that I finally started to get the hang of it. (Now, I’m a pretty good driver. I can take my super-torquey stick-shift hatchback on any hill in San Francisco and am happy to report that I do not fit the “Asian women are bad drivers” stereotype anymore.)

I do notice, though, that in the US, people tend to drive really irresponsibly — more than half of drivers on the streets in SF don’t signal when they’re switching lanes or taking a right turn, and they often stop in the middle of the street without hazards on or pulling over.

You rarely see this kind of annoying driver behavior in Japan, but you do see a lot of people driving super-slow, no doubt because they still remember the scary instructor man who sat next to them in driving school and insisted they should never speed. So which is better?

18 thoughts on “Driving in Japan v. driving in the US

  1. Of course, the super-slow is better, ’cause they are much more safer to others drivers, to themself and to pedestrians and cyclists. This type of driver learn that the life is much more important than the speed.
    As a bicycle commuter, I suffer a lot with reckless drivers. Plus, everytime I see a driver been disrespectfull with pedestrian I really get pissed off.

  2. I moved from SF to Tokyo about 2 years ago and it seems to me that drivers are much more considerate in Japan.
    So much so that it can actually be a bit confusing, particularly when I stop walking at an intersection fully expecting the car keep going or possibly speed up, but instead they actually stop and give me an affirmative nod to walk on by.
    Ultimately, safer is probably better, I always thought there was a high probability of dying while merging onto the Bay Bridge after midnight.

  3. Yes, if you are talking about Tokyo. Come to Tochigi and you will see just how bad Japanese drivers can be. Turn signals? Who needs them! Speed limits? Hahaha! Courtesy on the road? Why bother – it’s so much more fun to be passive-aggressive. After 5 years in Sweden were drivers actually come to a screeching stop as soon as you so much as indicate a desire to cross the street (crosswalk or not), driving in Tochigi has been a huge adjustment.

  4. Yeah, but driving standards vary greatly from area to area in the U.S.
    I live in Oklahoma, but I just about have to relearn to drive when I go to Dallas.
    It might have something to do with each state running its own testing and driver’s ed programs.

  5. The Japanese gf, drives a little to risky for me. I picked up an International Drivers License, just so I could drive with her. I’ve thought to myself, while in Tokyo traffic, that these cars must have their brakes checked annually.
    I didn’t mind riding with her on the freeway, but city driving was not that fun. I really enjoyed using bus, taxi and trains.
    Ultimately, it varies from person to person in my opinion, but I presume there’s data to show otherwise. In fact, I think there are a few countries that Japan accepts their drivers license to trade over. USA was not on that list last time I looked.

  6. Driving in San Francisco is not that bad. I mean, it’s not great either but I’ve been to the Philippines and other countries where the driving rules are just thrown out the window. I can’t remember what it was like in Mexico but I asked my friends and I was told a three lane freeway became six or more lanes. I do remember the Philippines was just like that and at one point my taxi got in a car accident.
    So I really have to disagree that San Francisco driving is that bad. It’s just annoying is all. And slow driving doesn’t mean that it’s safe either. You could be a hazard depending on the situation — like going 45 mph on a 60 mph freeway. If other drivers don’t notice a super slow car, they could potentially cause an accident even though they are going the limit. Ultimately, it’s just making people more aware of their surroundings that help.

  7. imo the key is predictability – if you can’t anticipate what fellow drivers on the road will do, there is great risk on danger. slow drivers are annoying I suppose but as long as they drive relatively predictably, at least they’re safer than irresponsible and unpredictable drivers

  8. I don’t know about your observation. Driving in Japan is hella scary. Yeah you do see turn signals, though they are turned on the second before they turn! People pulled over to talk on their keitai, in the turns of narrow streets. Oh my god. Trucks barreling down side streets like there is a sale at Jusco that they can’t miss. And the people who run the reds. When driving with my girlfriend, she always jokes about me actually stopping for yellow lights! lol Gotta love it here.

  9. Drivers in the US are worse, because they’re less likely to be stopped by the police; unless they’re going way to fast or erratic.
    In Europe (& I’m sure Japan) if you hang out in the passing lane (when not passing) you’ll be ticketed; no signals will be ticketed, etc.
    The driving tests are nearly useless in the US, as most are done on a closed course. Thus real-world issues are not acted upon.

  10. I drive in the Boston area, so I can’t really be fair in my comparisons. Everywhere is better than here, except Israel and Taiwan. I definitely second the comments about Europe, most especially Germany. Sure, they have some crazies, just like anywhere, but on the whole, I’ve never seen drivers so dedicated to the rules. No lane hogging on the highways, etc.

  11. Lisa, don’t you know that it is a scientifically proven fact that when one relocates to a new city, turn signal usage in the new city is on average 52.54% less than one’s previous city?
    And I total disagree about drivers in Japan not stopping in the middle of the road. It happens less now in Tokyo since the local government began (4 or 5 years ago) aggressively issuing tickets to stopped cars – even commercial trucks making deliveries.
    Outside of Tokyo, many seem to think it is OK to stop in the middle of the road at the end of a blind curve as long as they turn on their hazards.
    *That* is one reason to drive the speed limit in Japan.

  12. I’ve seen some pretty awful driving in Japan. Most drivers that I’ve seen tend to be pretty impatient. On the many narrow roads I drive down here I see pedestrians and since there isn’t a lot of room, I slow down. The drivers behind me speed quickly around me and within inches of the pedestrians. I’ve also seen a lot of drivers drive the wrong way down one way streets, etc. And let’s not forget how people park in the middle of the street in Japan. You know how drivers on Van Ness that make deliveries stop in the lane and throw on their hazard lights? This happens EVERYWHERE in Japan, but sometimes it’s someone running into a convenience store or stopping to buy a soda at a Jidohanbaiki. It’s insane.
    That said, drivers in SF do tend to avoid their turn signals and they make a lot of dangerous, immediate turns. But get outside SF and things tend to calm down.
    I guess it depends on yer perspective.

  13. I have a US license and I also tested and passed for my Japanese license. Japanese drivers are pretty good unless they’re rushed or the narrow roads are clogged with cars (which is often).
    I much prefer driving in Japan than the US. At least the speeds are lower so the accidents are much less lethal.

  14. I cannot compare to Japan but I can say that living in New York my whole life has conditioned me to drive fast and get out of people’s ways if they are faster than I am. San Francisco is no comparison to NY drivers. Cab drivers just go into your lane whether you are there or not and it’s your job to just make sure they don’t hit you. time, you find yourself actually driving like a New Yorker everywhere you go. The roads of San Fran. or even L.A. are no match for us New Yorkers!
    That being said, I think New Yorkers are actually good drivers for the most part. We can move down tight streets with no problem, encountering obstacles is a daily task whether it be the delivery person on a bike, pedestrians abound, or a taxi stopping in the middle of the road. It gets you used to being on your toes when you drive and makes you a more alert, smarter driver.
    I have to admit, I like speed. I find people who drive slow very annoying. I kind of equate being able to drive quickly, and safely, with intelligence. Spacial relations is a large part of an IQ test, if you can maneuver in and out of traffic and avoid accidents at high speed then your a good driver. Try driving in Portugal or Italy where the drivers truly are madmen (and women)!!!

  15. Really? Are you kidding me? I mean you seriously wrote that? Yes, Japanese drivers do spend much longer in driving school. And yes, at times it appears that they are driving slower. But have you ever been a cyclist in Japan? No, I don’t mean riding a momma-charlie on the sidewalk, I mean riding a road bike and actually having to share the road with those maniacs? I’ve never lived in Kanto, but I’ve lived all over Kansai: Kyoto, Wakayama and currently Osaka. First of all, the concept of stop signs and stop lights seem to be optional. There’s a reason why pedestrians never cross until the light turns green: Shingo-Mushi is rampant! I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve almost been hit (and actually hit once and hospitalized) by bad drivers in Japan. It’s infuriating. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that American drivers are perfect. But at least they live in fear of being ticketed by the ever-present highway patrol with nothing better to do. On the highways of the inaka, at least in western Japan, police enforcement is pretty sparse and many drivers definitely use it to their advantage.
    Japanese drivers ARE fantastic at parking (well, with the exception of parallel parking).
    Perhaps things are different up in civilized “Tokyo” (although I really doubt it) but in the inaka and rowdy Osaka, reckless drivers will be the death of you faster than all the ramen/tonkatsu/kushikatsu/takoyaki “health food”. End rant, sorry. p.s. I love all of the aforementioned foods.

  16. Be safe Defensive Driving Texas!!! you sound like me on the road! everything here is good, minus the weather! i miss you and am so glad to hear you and the kiddies are doing well! im sending you an email later updating you on the boy and the house! LOVE YOU!