On their first full day in Taiwan in September 2013, Jason and Keiko Jenkins and their two children were given a terrifying lesson in local road-use conventions.
Their son, then aged 11, stepped onto a crosswalk in downtown Tainan. A moment later, when the animated green figure that Taiwanese call xiaolüren (小綠人) began moving faster, Keiko urged the boy to speed up. Despite pedestrians having priority, vehicles turning right from Zhongshan Road onto Minzu Road began edging over the crosswalk, a common practice among drivers in Taiwan. Two- and four-wheelers were slowing or stopping as necessary, but the boy’s sudden acceleration resulted in a collision with a motorcycle ridden by a college student.
“My son had the right of way, but he did something unpredictable, causing the accident,” says Jason Jenkins, who grew up in the US state of Georgia.
The youngster suffered a leg injury, but no broken bones. “The guy who hit him couldn’t have been better about it,” recalls Jenkins. “He helped us at the hospital. In a way, I’m glad this happened at the very start of our time in Taiwan. After that, my kids – who were used to Tokyo’s traffic conditions – were extraordinarily cautious.”
Taiwan is not the only country where avoiding mishaps depends more on doing what other road users are likely to expect than on following rules set out by the authorities, says Jenkins, who has also lived in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Spain, and Mexico.
Tragically, Taiwanese road users do not seem to be getting any better at anticipating one another’s movements. Statistics from the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) show that between January and December 2021, 2,990 people died within 30 days of being injured in a road crash – 18 more than in the previous year – even though the number of recorded accidents (356,779) was down by just over 1.5%, and the total number of injuries (more than 450,000) was also lower.
Compared to the same period in 2020, fatalities in the first 11 months of 2021 among those under the age of 18 rose 9.1%. For those aged 65 or older, road deaths totaled 1,031 (down 6.6%). Pedestrian and cyclist fatalities declined slightly, but those involving electric bicycles jumped 27.3% to 56.
The most recent year in which road fatalities declined was 2017, when 2,697 people lost their lives. Some attribute the uptick in deaths since then to a huge increase in the number of food deliveries made by motorcycle. Indeed, every year many of those killed (including 1,655 between January and November 2021) are on motorcycles.
Counting both deaths and injuries per 100,000 residents, Tainan City, Taoyuan City, and Pingtung County have Taiwan’s most dangerous roads.
In 2000, deaths on highways totaled 3,388, or 15.4 per 100,000 residents. At the start of 2021, deaths per 100,000 had dropped only slightly, to 12.6. Some of Taiwan’s neighbors have made far greater progress. According to the OECD’s International Transport Forum, in 2018 South Korea recorded 7.3 road fatalities per 100,000, down from an atrocious 21.8 in 2000. Between 2000 and 2019, traffic deaths in Japan fell by 62% to just 3.1 per 100,000.
Riding a motorcycle is inherently more dangerous than driving a car – and, per square kilometer, Taiwan has at least 10 times more powered two-wheelers than Japan. But this is not the only reason for Taiwan’s higher death rate. In an Apple Daily article dated December 1, 2018, Taipei-based Japanese journalist Nojima Tsuyoshi described road conditions on the island as reminiscent of 1970s Japan, and “almost like a battlefield.”
Responding by email to Taiwan Business Topics, the MOTC said its efforts to reduce traffic-accident injuries and deaths are unceasing. In recent years, the ministry stated, it has curbed drunk driving, enhanced training and licensing standards for motorcyclists, provided police with new enforcement technologies, and stepped up educational work.
In a May 7, 2021 article on her Facebook page, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lawmaker Yeh Yu-lan contrasted government spending on policies designed to boost the birth rate with the Ministry of Education having set aside just 0.0025% of its budget for road-safety issues. Arguing that this low figure showed “disregard for the rights of those already born,” she asked, “are people willing to have children in an unsafe environment?”
Since 2006, the Jing Chuan Child Safety Foundation has been working with local schools to teach students correct traffic-safety concepts and improve the local road environment. According to a foundation spokesperson, in addition to improving traffic-safety education, the government should investigate accident hotspots and reconsider its approach to road design. The foundation suggests that Taiwan follow Japan by installing railings on both sides of busy thoroughfares, so people cannot cross wherever they like.
The spokesperson also urges the authorities to enforce speed limits more strictly in urban areas. In Western countries, speeding is cited as a factor in many crashes. However, according to the Statistical Analysis of Road Traffic Accidents data from January to October 2020 posted on the MOTC’s website, excess speed is not among the top five causes of road deaths and injuries in Taiwan.
Many of Taiwan’s road accidents are caused by drivers failing to pay attention rather than speeding. Failing to pay attention and failing to yield were the two most common causes of fatalities. Such behavior was also linked to 155,963 cases of injury. Making left turns “not in accordance with rules” is another major cause of deaths and injuries. Failing to maintain a safe distance is the number-four cause of non-fatal spills but does not kill many people.
Other dangerous behaviors often seen on local roads include running red lights, turning without signaling, driving or riding without lights after dark or during torrential rain, and driving or riding while using a cellphone.
Cheng Tsu-Jui is among those who contend that driving behavior in Taiwan lags behind other countries that have reached a similar level of economic development. Many people in cars assume roads exist for their convenience and that they deserve priority over citizens on two wheels or two feet, he says.
Since taking up an assistant professorship at National Cheng Kung University’s Department of Transportation and Communication Management Science in the summer of 2020, Cheng has tried to make a habit of commuting by bicycle to the campus in central Tainan.
“But I’m finding it a bit tricky and a bit dangerous,” he laments. He says that when he studied in London a decade ago, the environment and infrastructure there for cyclists was much better than it is currently in any part of Taiwan outside Taipei. In London, and later during the two years he worked in Bonn in Germany, he got around by bike, on foot, or by public transportation.
In both the UK and Germany, Cheng explains, the authorities now emphasize a hierarchy of road users that puts pedestrians and users of mobility aids at the very top, followed by cyclists, horse riders, motorcyclists, cars, vans, and – at the bottom – buses and trucks. Taiwan’s government should follow suit, and make clear through education who must yield to whom, he argues.
Taiwan needs an island-wide road safety agency “with real teeth,” he says. The MOTC’s National Road Traffic Safety Commission (NRTSC), established back in 1983, is not structured to properly challenge the authorities’ ideas and assumptions, he explains. Spending by the ministry on road safety, which in 2021 accounted for just 0.4% of the ministry’s total budget, “should be much higher,” he adds.
A body like the NRTSC is unlikely to approve radical action, says Cheng, because it is staffed mainly by civil servants and thus lacks independent assessments and stakeholder engagement. In addition to being cautious by nature, technocrats in the MOTC and local governments’ transportation bureaus got their jobs after passing examinations based on textbooks, which Cheng says must be updated if Taiwan is to build a modern road-safety culture.
The mandatory helmet law that came into force in 1997 helped reduce deaths among motorcyclists. Tightening the DUI (Driving under the Influence) law contributed to a reduction in drunk-driving fatalities, from 909 in 2011 to under 300 in recent years. Taxi drivers now require passengers to buckle up. Yet in other respects, enforcement of traffic rules is sporadic, particularly in rural areas.
Enforcement is so fundamental, Cheng explains, that transportation experts call it one of the “three E’s” or three pillars of road safety, along with education and engineering. He adds two more “E’s” to the list: Engagement (involving as many stakeholders as possible) and empowerment (teaching everyone that they are part of the road-safety equation).
When it comes to getting people to obey the law, Cheng says he is hopeful for two reasons. Cameras tied to License Plate Recognition software make it possible to surveil every stretch of road, reducing the need for “boots on the ground” policing. At the same time, young politicians often pressure the police to more strictly enforce the law, while pushing local governments to improve road design.
However, Cheng says, the authorities should make far greater use of the penalty points system introduced more than 20 years ago. Despite the millions of fines issued for traffic violations every year, relatively few drivers have their licenses suspended, or are ordered to attend road-safety courses.
Evaluation tools developed by iRAP (the International Road Assessment Program, a UK-based NGO) could be very useful for Taiwan. “We’d be able to find out where we are, which is necessary if we’re to progress to where we want to be,” Cheng says. The MOTC, after showing initial enthusiasm for iRAP, did not pursue the initiative. Cheng wonders whether this was because “they realized that Taiwan wouldn’t score well, and politicians in Taiwan may not want to be embarrassed. But it means we’re avoiding the first step.”
Like Cheng, Charles Lin, executive director of the Taiwan Traffic Safety Association, argues that a pedestrians-first policy must be central to any effort to make the roads safer. “This civilized concept will require brave and decisive execution,” he says. Lin’s association was formed in 2017 to represent road users excluded by what he says is the authorities’ focus on cars and trucks.
Lin is pushing for modern, uniform road-design standards, like those set out in the US Department of Transportation’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the UK’s Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions, and the Netherlands’ CROW design manual for bicycle traffic. He also calls for better training for drivers, motorcyclists, and traffic engineers, and for greater reliance on crash analysis before tightening speed-limit enforcement.
In addition, Lin says the construction of new cycleways is less important than amending the existing policy that consigns powered two-wheelers of up to 250cc in slow lanes together with bicycles. “This creates a bad traffic environment for all kinds of slow-moving vehicles,” he says.
Lin views the current vehicle safety standards for both larger commercial vehicles and passenger cars as insufficient, and singles out Direct Vision Standards (which regulate the visibility and awareness of the driver and other road-users through sensors and cameras, as well as windows and mirrors) for trucks as lacking. His association regularly interacts with the MOTC and local transportation bureaus but has yet to receive a response to its suggestions from the Vehicle Safety Certification Center, a non-profit under the supervision of the MOTC.
Lin says that because various lobbies hold sway among politicians and within the central and local governments, road policy is heavily influenced by economic considerations. Illegal parking is often ignored because stores and restaurants hope customers can park nearby, SUVs and trucks enjoy priority over pedestrians and motorcycles, and speed traps are positioned to maximize revenue, not enhance safety.
This emphasis on what is good for business may well be injurious to the overall economy. A 2010 study by the MOTC’s Institute of Transportation concluded that the previous year’s traffic accidents cost Taiwan NT$431.9 billion (US$15.5 billion), equal to 3.17% of GDP. In 2014, the institute estimated the economic burden had reached NT$475 billion per year.
These tallies do not include what the World Health Organization calls “psychosocial losses.” In a 2016 paper, Huang Lan-ying, an associate professor in National Taipei University’s Graduate School of Criminology, noted that “post-crash occupational disruption” among victims’ families in Taiwan is almost as prevalent as among seriously-injured victims themselves. Traffic collisions “carry a very high socio-economic cost for the society and the families affected, in part because traffic-crash injuries and casualties generally occur in victims’ mid-life years.”
In her conclusion, she called for a redoubling of efforts to reduce collisions, and – in a remark that is as valid now as it was in 2016 – observed that “Taiwan has had appropriate legislation in place for a long time [yet] ongoing enforcement of these laws, even with the addition of closed-circuit TV monitors in key locations, remains far from optimal.”
This article originally appeared in the March issue of Taiwan Business Topics. This version was updated to include road accident statistics for December 2021.