Living in Taiwan, as with any country, comes with its own particular advantages and challenges. One mundane but high frequency challenge is getting around. Outside of trains and mass transport there's the choice of facing the hazards of using the roads as a pedestrian, cyclist, or a motorist. The risks of doing so is a topic that frequently pops up – a common denominator amongst foreign residents and Taiwanese alike. Complaining about the traffic is almost a cultural tradition here, a past time the author himself has contributed to in various fora including serious and satirical blog posts, Twitter, and in letters to newspapers. Much of the debate about why Taiwanese traffic is so hazardous has focused on the particular quirks of how the Taiwanese use the roads, often with a slight Orientalist tone. Taiwanese, many of us conclude, are bad drivers and have little inclination to follow the rules and laws of the highway most of the time. A running internet joke of foreigners states “you know you’ve been in Taiwan too long when you look both ways before going through a green light”. A variation of the same joke only swaps ‘green’ for ‘red’. When in Rome.
Photo by damon jah
You would be hard pressed to find a foreign resident who does not have a personal traffic accident anecdote. I used to tell new arrivals that if they wanted to ride a scooter it would be a matter of when, not if, they would have an accident. Driving in Taiwan can be extremely hazardous, not always passively. In sixteen years of living here, the author’s personal tally stands as follows:
- Hit by a car - 2
- Hit another scooter at speed - 1
- Hit by a scooter at speed - 2
- Hit by a scooter at low speeds - 10+
- Slid and fell off scooter - 2
That’s on average one notable traffic incident a year. And these are the just the ones that can be immediately recalled. Every so often traffic incidents involving foreigners makes the news in Taiwan; the man convicted of a drunk driving fatality who then fled back to the UK, the motorcyclist who fell off his motorbike and into a coma only to pass away a few years later, the visiting cyclist senselessly mown down by a truck on a wide-open highway on a sunny afternoon.
Photo by William Notowidagdo
A vox pop of foreign residents describing the safety of Taiwanese roads in one word would likely return 'dangerous’ as the highest scoring result. But it’s not just foreigners who have this impression. Taiwanese media gives extensive coverage to vehicular and pedestrian fatalities and injuries, and reproduces a persistent narrative that Taiwanese roads are some of the most lethal in the world. This is perhaps not surprising, given the history of traffic accidents and the recent proliferation of dashboard and helmet cams which feed a media hungry for live footage of the latest piece of traffic mayhem. The day’s footage of traffic accidents has become a staple of every news broadcast cycle, alongside that other Taiwanese favorite: what’s good to eat. This video of accidents is thirty minutes long and only covers some of the incidents, in October 2016 alone. Taiwanese roads are, in the common imagination, something between Mad Max and a car chase scene from a Jason Bourne film.
Except, both comparatively and absolutely, that’s not the case at all. As with any enduring trope or urban myth, hard statistical truths fight a long and arduous battle to gain ascendancy in the popular consciousness. Looking at just fatalities per 100,000 residents, there is no doubt that Taiwan used to rank as one of the highest in the world. Before we look at the numbers, a word about how they are compiled. The Ministry of Health & Welfare, and the Ministry of Interior (MOI) National Police Agency, have their own statistics, and switch between counting either deaths per 100,000 people or per 10,000 vehicles. The Ministry of Transport and Communications (MOTC) usually cites the MOI figures, which since 2000 have included A1 and A2 incidents, but A2 deaths are not calculated. Taiwan records deaths as A1 - accidents with death on the spot or within 24 hours, and A2 - accidents with injuries or death after 24 hours. The common international standard is to count all deaths that are the direct result of accidents within 30 days. The Ministry of Health & Welfare bases its figures on a similar standard and as a result its numbers are almost double those of the MOI. Mr Chiu (邱創賦) at the MOTC kindly provided me with statistics on fatalities from road accidents for the years 1993 to 2016 which are detailed in the table below:
Photo by mobil'homme
Using the Ministry of Health & Welfare's statistics, in 1995 there were 35.1 deaths per 100,000 population (7427). In 2005 this had dropped to 20.8 (4735) and by 2015 the figure had fallen further to 12.7 (2922). According to the MOTC, which references MOI figures, the number of fatalities fell from 2894 in 2005 to 1696 in 2015. Comparatively, Taiwan still doesn't rank as one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Referencing the WHO figures for 2013, the world average was 17.4 fatalities per 100,000 citizens with Southeast Asia at 17.0, Americas with 15.9, and Europe at 9.3. The individual nation breakdown included:
- Thailand - 36.2
- South Africa - 25.1
- Vietnam - 24.5
- Brazil - 23.4
- Myanmar - 20.3
- China - 18.8
- Indonesia - 15.3
- United States - 10.6
- Philippines - 10.5
- South Korea - 10.4
- India - 6.6
- Japan - 4.7
- Germany - 4.3
- Singapore - 3.6
- United Kingdom - 2.9
In 2013, Taiwan had a population of roughly 23 million and, using the Ministry of Health & Welfare figures, 3129 fatalities, making 13.6 deaths per 100,000 citizens, slightly higher than the United States, South Korea, and European average. Taiwan, although nowhere near as safe as Singapore, is relatively one of the safer countries to use the road in Asia. Given Taiwan’s density of population per size of territory and number of vehicles on the roads per capita this number is not entirely catastrophic, even if there is still plenty of room for improvement. In the international school of driving the impression Taiwanese and foreign residents might have of Taiwan’s performance might be an F but the reality is somewhat closer to a C minus. Moreover, from the figures above we can see a clear trend of improvement over time. Taiwan is becoming a safer place to use the roads, slow as that progress might seem. However the Ministry is not content with this apparent trend with Transportation Minister Ho Chen Tan (賀陳旦) recently stating his goal to reduce traffic fatality rates by 15 percent over the next three years.
Photo by Plotr Gaborek
Looking at the causes of accidents and fatalities, the MOTC found “more than 90 percent of the traffic accidents happening [sic] because the drivers lacked an awareness of road risks and driving ethics.” The Ministry announced it would target road safety campaigns at those groups most involved in accidents: motorcyclists, older drivers, cyclists, and drivers of special vehicles. In 2015, the MOTC and National Police Agency released a report citing the most common causes of fatal accidents:
"In 2012, drunk driving was still the leading cause of fatal accidents, followed by failure to yield violations and failure to comply with traffic signals. However, failure to yield violations has outranked drunk driving as the main culprit of deadly accidents for two straight years since 2013. Most violations involved vehicles on a branch road failing to yield to vehicles on an arterial road, vehicles on the left failing to yield to vehicles on the right, vehicles on a route with fewer lanes failing to yield to vehicles on a route with more lanes, or vehicles taking a turn failing to yield to vehicles going forward. Most accidents occurred where there are no signs or traffic lights. Failure to yield the right-of-way can be seen at junctions and alleyways, with vehicle operators not bothering to stop or slow when crossing an intersection, resulting in a great number of traffic collisions."
Most discussion in the media and amongst road safety advocate groups focuses almost solely on the drivers themselves, their lack of observation and spatial awareness, and ‘lack of ethics’ - an indirect way of saying that drivers are careless, selfish, and often cavalier in their regard to disobeying common traffic rules. Other commentary bemoans the ease by which people can obtain a scooter license and the poor standard of driving instruction. Both concerns are legitimate and easily demonstrated contributors to Taiwan’s accident rate. In recent years an effort has been made to shift driving instruction and tests to roads, rather than the specially adapted parking lots they have been traditionally carried out in, but most people still have too little experience of driving on the road before getting their vehicle license. Another problem is that there are simply not enough police officers, or enough money, city halls can dedicate to catching and penalizing people for the daily low level transgressions which all too often end in tragedy.
Photo by David Chu
Although the situation is improving in regards to the number of fatalities and curbing drunk driving, the number of low level accidents and injuries is very high and rising. Part of this can be attributed to an increased density of vehicles on the roads and partly to improved safety features in cars which mean more accidents but less that have a lethal outcome (for the occupants of the car at least). Whilst more and more Taiwanese use technology such as cameras to provide evidence in court and for insurance claims in the event of an accident, technology such as airbags, ABS, and proximity sensors in cars have also become a substitute for careful driving. A personal experience springs to mind.
I was a passenger in my boss’ new Mercedes one day and we were using one of Taipei’s elevated dual-carriage expressways to get across town. He was driving faster than the traffic flow and too close to the car in front of us. Whilst I, as a traditionally nervous passenger, was keeping one eye on the traffic three cars ahead, he was content to rely on the sensor to provide an audio cue that a collision was imminent. Seeing the brake lights of a vehicle ahead in our lane come on, I guessed that the vehicle immediately in front of us was likely also not paying enough attention, or maintaining a safe distance, and would brake late and hard as a result. I was not wrong. I shouted “watch out!” half a second before the car’s proximity sensor kicked in which is when my boss applied his own brakes hard. Fortunately, there was no collision since road conditions were clear and dry but had they not been it’s hard to see how my boss would have prevented his advanced Mercedes from rear-ending the truck in front. His response was mild surprise and admiration that I had beaten his sensor in being aware of the danger first. I had done nothing more than just look ahead, anticipate, and respond early.
Having witnessed and been involved in so many traffic incidents in Taiwan over the years, I have spent some time contemplating how Taiwanese roads could be made safer for all users, particularly for pedestrians and cyclists. One book that changed the way I thought about this subject was Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt. Rather than focus on laws and traffic tests, Vanderbilt takes a more psychological, behavioral, and built environment approach to the issue of what shapes the way we drive. In the past I cited impatience, a desire for convenience, and a flexible attitude to the rule of law as cultural characteristics which were likely the dominant causes of many accidents in Taiwan. Now, I started looking at other factors. For example, to what extent did road design in Taiwan contribute to the accident rate, and how? Where and when did the poor driving habits I saw every day originate? These questions led to two broad conclusions: accidents are largely a function of 1) low skill and 2) a traffic management environment which induces frustration, risk taking, and law breaking.
Photo by matthewwu88
Observation of how people drive vehicles with more than three wheels is strongly suggestive of patterns of bad habits associated with people operating vehicles with three wheels or less. This is logical. Often the first motorized vehicle a person uses in Taiwan is a scooter. Almost every child has ridden on their family's scooter, starting either slung across the back, squashed in between parents, or standing in the foot rest area whilst holding onto the wing mirrors. Bad habits are first learned here. These habits are reinforced when the child graduates to riding their own bicycle, riding up and down the street and pavement in any direction. By high school, a lot of young adults are riding their own scooters (some illegally and many because it’s just a part of helping the family out with chores or the family business). Bad habits are reinforced and hardwired during this time. An environmental feature which incentivizes bad habits is the poor and sometimes absent demarcation between the pavement and the road. Many towns and cities in Taiwan still feature most streets with either blocked pavements or no pavements at all. The bicycle rider then switches alternately between the two. In one journey the cyclist will frequently switch 'identity' between being a high speed pedestrian and a low speed road user. Since most streets are not designed to prioritize either, the need to achieve a modicum of convenience in short distance movement incentivizes multi-purpose usage. The adaptability of Taiwanese to an environment continually rebuilt for development combines seamlessly with a culture of convenience - seeking the quickest path of least resistance.
A disregard for traffic management and separation rules is almost an inevitable outcome of rapid and uneven development, especially when there is a poor regimen of training. Necessary, continual education from a young age on safe use of the streets as a pedestrian, cyclist, and scooter rider is not universally provided. By the time a young adult comes to take the written and practical tests for obtaining a scooter license, most bad habits have already been thoroughly internalized. The tests themselves do little to undo this damage. Many people study only to pass the test rather than to upgrade their skill set or get a fuller appreciation of road safety. There is of course an understanding that certain behaviors and actions are dangerous but this is calculated against the benefits of convenience, and convenience wins more often than not. The worst behaviors exhibited by drivers of four wheeled vehicles can all be seen in users of two and three wheeled transports: failure to indicate, sudden turns, sudden braking, double and illegal parking, hazardously slow driving on busy thoroughfares, weaving between lanes without indicating, frequently changing lanes to use the fastest moving lane then getting stuck in the wrong lane, nudging into another lane thereby forcing other users to slow down and give way, cutting across two or more lanes at a time, driving the wrong way, and driving without helmets / seat belts properly fastened. Perhaps Taiwanese are learning bad habits long before they even start to use motorized vehicles. There is currently insufficient education to teach good habits and respect for road safety from a young age, the testing process for a license is simplistic and does nothing to instill good habits, penalties for contravening rules are relatively low and poorly enforced, and a built environment hostile to pedestrians and cyclists encourages disregard for rules. This last observation brings me to my second conclusion.
Photo by Tomás Fano
Taiwan is a country which has physically transformed in less than fifty years from a largely rural economy and infrastructure to a developed and intensely populated space filled with urban areas. Although the Japanese attempted to upgrade and industrialize Taiwanese towns and cities by introducing concepts of street and traffic management, the speed by which the country developed after World War Two, combined with the massive influx of foreign refugees in 1949, has put a huge strain on Taiwanese urban planning. On a macro level, Taiwanese cities and town centers are just not designed to handle the sheer volume of traffic, human or motorized, that they do today. That Taiwan would have a population of 23 million, half of whom would own both a car and a scooter, was not envisaged either by the Japanese nor Chinese colonial governments.
Attempts have been made to address this with large boulevards, expressways, and freeways added all over the country but this has led to unexpected side-effects. The more roads that are built, the more vehicles are encouraged to use them. Building more roads doesn’t ease traffic congestion, a well-known relationship that many governments still ignore, largely in order to please the car industry. Traffic speeds alternate between fast and very slow and can change very quickly on the same stretch of road. Wide, arid, alienating duel carriageways effectively split whole towns, villages, and communities into two, adding a dangerous high speed savannah between neighbors. As Vanderbilt demonstrates, making a road wider makes it faster, but not necessarily safer, either for the driver or the pedestrian. The prevalence of dual carriageways in Taiwan, where in the UK or Europe such roads would be dual lane only, funnels faster traffic into slower, busier, and more congested smaller town center roads. Taiwan has a fantastic rail network but this has been absolutely neglected as a mode of mass transport in the past fifty years when we compare the miles of new track laid to the miles of new road built. There is now a high-speed railway on the west coast from North to South but the East Coast line is still using tracks laid down ninety-two years ago. Governments routinely prefer building concrete monstrosities to enable fast access for wheeled vehicles over expanding the rail network. An example here is the recently built Freeway No.6 from Caotun to Puli, enabling quick access for tour buses to tourist sites in the center of the country such as Hehuan Mountain and Sun Moon Lake.
At the micro level, Taiwan has largely followed the failed car-intensive US model of traffic management and separation. There are very few roundabouts in Taiwan and for the concept to be introduced widely a massive education and re-testing program would be necessary beforehand. Too few streets are pedestrianized with local governments crippled by fear of the instant backlash from residents, and the electoral suicide, rezoning the streets would cause. Taiwanese want safer, cleaner, and more effective streets but too often they are unwilling to temporarily sacrifice any comfort or convenience to achieve those things. The media plays its part here amplifying discontent into a full-blown scandals for ratings. Furthermore, there are both too many and too few traffic lights, causing respectively both frustration, congestion, risk taking, and collisions. Compounding the latter is a widespread misunderstanding and disregard for the concept of right of way and give way. Culture and population density play a part here as motorists calculate they must force their way through because no-one else will give way. It is common to see traffic ‘dragons’, where a left turning vehicle sets off a chain of following vehicles all keen to use the window of opportunity opened to them to also turn left across oncoming traffic, thereby jamming the intersection. A left turn traffic light at these busy intersections would solve this problem. Pedestrians face their own hazards crossing the roads when the pedestrian signal and the parallel traffic signal are green at the same time, pitting traffic that is turning against pedestrians and cyclists crossing the roads, again causing congestion, frustration, and risk taking.
Photo by leahahaha
As for bicyclists, a debate about how to accommodate them has raged for years but produced little infrastructural change for commuters. Whilst Taiwan now has hundreds of miles of new bicycle paths, most of them are for tourist or recreational locations. Attempts to introduce dedicated bicycle lanes in Taipei failed miserably under the last Mayor. However, there are some indications the current Mayor has placed a greater priority on the issue and integrated it into a wider plan for redesigning the city. Cycling in Taiwan for commuting on main roads is still far too dangerous and inconvenient for a cycling culture to take hold in the way that it has in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Additionally, the layout of roads and the way lanes of traffic merge into each other invites confusion and accidents. The homogeneity of work schedules results in wide roads and narrow lanes that handles over capacity twice a day during rush hour, and then standing relatively empty for the rest of the day. It represents a monumental waste of space that could be used for wider pavements, grass banks, and trees. The city clogs up and chokes so that cars can move, slowly. Finally, buses and taxis compete with traffic flowing around them as they pull in and out of lanes when picking up passengers. Aside from the pollution generated, a lack of dedicated lanes and off-road stops for these vehicles is yet another contributor to poor traffic separation and congestion.
In the end, whilst normative cultural values in Taiwan such as 'convenience', risk taking, and law breaking clearly contribute to accidents which result in serious or fatal injuries, the lesson from other countries with safer traffic systems seems to be that a rigorous training and testing framework, combined with a clear, consistent, and effective traffic management system, does incentivize safer behavior., It's not the culture that kills. Accordingly, Taiwan's regulatory system and physical environment shapes how people use the streets here. For traffic safety to radically improve in Taiwan, rather than design the streets to be convenient mostly for cars, the built environment of cities and towns should be re-oriented so that it is convenient for pedestrians, mass public transit, and small size vehicles. Accordingly, here are my policy proposals for improving road safety and generating greener people-friendly cities:
1.1 - Regular education programs on road safety mandatory for all through elementary school to university (a similar program on water safety could run alongside this). Emphasize the importance of observation/spatial awareness, visibility and distance, danger spots, anticipating traffic movement ahead, and the importance of prioritizing safety over convenience.
1.2 - Slowly introduce roundabouts to replace large box intersections and require demonstrated proficient use of them as a requisite for gaining a motor vehicle license.
1.3 - Make gaining a scooter license more difficult and dependent upon demonstrated understanding of good practice as exemplified in 1.1 above.
1.4 - Greatly expand the use of trams and street-level light rail transit systems on high volume roads, especially those feeding commuters during rush hour.
1.5 - Build cycle/scooter tunnels to allow two-wheeled transport to flow under large intersections more smoothly and reduce ‘competition’ with multi-wheeled vehicles. If two wheeled transport doesn't need to stop for lights it will encourage commuting by cycling by making it faster and safer.
1.6 - All new proposals for expressways or freeways must first consider a rail option for the same route instead.
1.7 - Pedestrian crossing lights should be dedicated to pedestrians and cycles only and separated from green lights for vehicle movement.
1.8 - Two-wheeled vehicles to be allowed to turn right on a red light.
1.9 - In the manner of airport runways, roads fitted with flashing embedded LED arrows showing lane separation and encouraging traffic to get in lane early.
2.0 - For wide dual carriageways in towns and suburbs, widen dual-purpose pedestrian / cyclist pavements and convert one lane on either side to a dedicated bus / taxi lane. Implement frequent wide pedestrian walkways across the roads with 'green on request' traffic lights to allow smooth movement of pedestrians in neighborhoods. Plant trees in wider pavements and widened center partition.
2.1 - Build separate dedicated bus and taxi stops that are off the main road.
2.2 - Build underground vertical storage parking lots for small electric cars, cycles, and scooters. Place them around towns and cities with a similar frequency and density of convenience stores. Payment for these can be by coin or Travel Card. This will enable street-side car and scooter parking spaces to be eliminated allowing wider pavements and dedicated bus and taxi stopping points.
2.3 - Transition electricity lines in cities underground, remove curb-side electricity poles, and widen the pavements to allow access for pedestrians and those with special mobility needs.
2.4 - All trains, local and high speed, to feature a dedicated cycle carriage.
2.5 - Convert two center lanes of 3+ lane freeways to rapid train lines.