Road Rage: Without Law Enforcement Taiwan’s Jekylls Become Hydes

Road Rage: Without Law Enforcement Taiwan’s Jekylls Become Hydes
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Taiwan’s motorists wait at the intersection of civility and chaos for effective law enforcement to change from red to green.

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Usually well-mannered Taiwanese are widely recognised as friendly people, ever willing to help with directions often even walking a lost traveler to their destination. However, when essential laws are not enforced a frightening number of customarily considerate Jekylls transform into terrorizing Hydes.

Aspects of Taiwanese society are analogous to the 19th century Scottish novella "Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde." A classic tale described as, “An examination of the duality of human nature, an inner struggle between good and evil or civilization versus barbarism.”

Robert Louis Stevenson’s good-natured Dr. Jekyll is transformed to dangerous self-indulgent Mr. Hyde by a well-intended serum gone wrong. Likewise, what may have originally been well-meaning indifferent applications of Taiwan’s laws have only condoned lawlessness fomenting uncivilized Hyde-like alter egos detrimental to civil society.

Taiwanese and Canadians are generally considered friendly peoples and both nations also share well-maintained roads but when driving in Taiwan a chilling divergence of experience prevails.

From many years experience driving in both countries I’ve witnessed Canadian patrol officers often issuing traffic tickets for various moving violations, yet the only tickets issued with regularity in greater Taipei is for right hand turns on red lights. But seemingly never for the far more dangerous and ubiquitous practices of: turning left at a red light, speeding, careless lane changes or even impatiently running straight through red lights.

According to latest government data in 2015, 397,048 people were injured in Taiwan traffic accidents. This total is more than two and a half times the 149,900 injuries Canada recorded (2014). Furthering this startling disparity of misfortune between the two nations is Canadian roads are often treacherously snow and ice covered during the winter months. Traffic deaths in the same years for Canada were 1,843 but although Canada also has 50% more people Taiwan nearly equalled Canada’s carnage with 1,819 road fatalities.

Yet with the severe lack of traffic law enforcement in Taiwan it is a testament to the upstanding character of most Taiwanese that this dire situation is not worse.

Government officials have regularly offered excuses for insufficient law enforcement, as most recently reported: “The main problem with enforcing Taiwan’s ample traffic laws is the immense manpower needed. The police force is chronically underfunded and understaffed, and a typical (intersection) requires at least three officers and several hours time from each.

Assigning one to three police officers to traffic control duty at each of hundreds of greater Taipei intersections every rush hour is a poor expenditure of this resource. Surely issuing tickets for intersection offences would be exceedingly more effective and efficient. The deterrent effect of issuing tickets would also facilitate reassignment of most officers to patrol undeterred perilous moving violations.

The following are fines on the books for three offences that should be regularly meted out; talking on a phone while driving is NT$3,000, NT$1,500 for not wearing a seatbelt and for running red lights it’s up to NT$5,400.

The revenue collected for just these three common infractions by one patrol officer in the greater Taipei area per week would most likely equal the monthly wages of two to four officers, if not more. Claims of insufficient budget for hiring more officers would appear dubious.

Furthermore, despite the police presence at intersections motorists, taxi’s and bus drivers are allowed to recklessly run red lights as “traffic control” officers, unwillingly or unable by directive, do not enforce traffic laws especially so outside of Taipei city.

The following shocking statistics were also recently reported: “Over the last decade, police citations for traffic violations (such as) illegal speeding and running red lights, have in fact decreased, falling from 20,000 a year in 2001 to 9,396 last year.”

This is certainly not because traffic violations have reduced over this period of time, rather observation bares a more frequent occurrence. While, “in the same period, total fines meted out have dropped from NT$23 billion to NT$13 billion.”

There is a clear dereliction of duty and squandering of revenue resources that is apparently mandated from the top down.

If it weren’t reason enough to just save lives, enforcing road safety laws would also certainly garner a vast savings for the National Health Insurance (NHI) program. As the Taipei Times has oft reported the NHI administrators are struggling to maintain its viability and would certainly appreciate a reduction in unnecessary costly emergency room admissions that diligent traffic law enforcement would provide.

NHI would also assuredly welcome mandatory helmet laws extended to children who are unfathomably exempt.

Examples of Taiwan’s dysfunctional road culture fostered by nonenforcement are recounted with the following examples.

While stopped at a red light with a uniformed police officer next to me, an impatient scooter driver in front of us sped away only half way through the red light cycle yet both times the officer present ignored the traffic offense.

Why is “policing” of this sort a common occurrence outside of Taipei city? Is it a laissez fair culture, dereliction of duty, mismanagement?

This culture of hands-off engagement on the roads bleeds throughout society darkening the spirit of its citizenry.

The usually kind and helpful public seem to transmute when mounted on their scooters. Almost never will they lift a finger for one of their city neighbours accidentally sprawled out on the road right in front of them.

One of many examples witnessed and experienced occurred when a bus driver turned left into a female scooter rider, knocked her over and injured her. The bus driver proceeded to just sit, looking out his window waiting for her to get out from under his bus. Clearly unable to help herself I assisted the victim and dragged her scooter out from under the bus’ midsection. Stonefaced and silent the bus driver then sped away. All the while dozens of the casualty’s compatriots only watched, waiting for the bus to unblocked their intersection so they could eagerly race off in Hyde like fashion.

Another regularly disturbing occurrence is speed limit mismanagement. Driving well over the speed limit at 70-80 plus kph is commonplace on city streets, so why is it that current regulations require warning signs of upcoming radar speed detector locations? Naturally the amply forewarned drivers hit their breaks, pass the “speed trap” and then it’s back on the gas, hell be damned. Not only do the warning signs impair traffic safety management but they also steal needed revenue, as claimed, from city coffers.

Chicken or egg, either way Taiwanese have become notoriously impatient drivers and not enforcing even basic right-of-way laws is as objectionable as having children play in the middle of a busy road.

Drivers are not fined for infringing upon right-of-way travelers, hence they’re permitted; to pull out in front of passing vehicles forcing them to hit their brakes, to turn anywhere at any time - except right at a red light of course – to drive on the wrong side of the road to pass and impede oncoming traffic for selfish expedience, and to perilously cut off on-coming vehicles to make a left turn.

This is effectively a state-sponsored invitation to road anarchy nurtured by ghostly law enforcement execution. The cultural practice of relying on burning ghost money for protection rather than real police taking tangible actions has propagated a downward cycle of disappointing corporeal results.

The only thing worse than a nation without the rule of law is one that fails to enforce its laws, for this engenders disobedience and contempt for societies rules fostering a citizenry that increasingly demonstrates disrespect.

Disrespect for the law is hemorrhaging throughout Taiwan’s consciousness, as witnessed by the immoral food production scandals that have occurred over the past few years.

On May 3, in the latest of a litany of deceitful food suppliers flaunting disrespect for society, The Food and Drug Administration identified two companies repackaging ingredients that expired nine years ago. Only last April dioxin infused eggs were removed from consumer shelves. The eggs originated from local farms apparently cutting corners with chicken feed.

Back in 2014 The New York Times even chimed in: “Taiwanese authorities have been struggling to control a food scare caused by 645 tons of adulterated cooking oil… distributed to more than 1,200 restaurants, schools and food processors… health authorities had identified a wide array of more than 1,300 food products tainted by the oil, including instant noodles, snacks, cakes, dumplings, bread, canned pork, meat paste and glutinous rice. Taiwan obviously needs a stronger food-safety policy with meaningful penalties.”

Interestingly a recent poll revealing Taipei to be perceived as the third safest city worldwide regarding crime likely had leadership patting themselves on the back. Real and pervasive crimes such as reckless driving and food poisoning were apparently not factored in.

In democracies politicians are obliged to keep one eye on the next election and are often leery of engaging voters’ wrath by legislating change to societal norms. Affecting change in Taiwan’s modern society, though not easy, is possible and demonstrable.

Recent legislation has exemplified societal transformation from Hydes to Jekylls is possible without suffering political backlash.

Not that long ago drunk driving was commonplace and not a crime whereas these days Taiwanese willingly accept the world’s strictest blood alcohol content laws. Since effective roadside spot-check implementation alcohol-related road deaths have hit record lows.

Education also plays a part transitioning away from a violent road culture. Riders of 250cc and over motorcycles are required to complete a seven-day instructional course to obtain a license. Tellingly these most schooled of Taiwanese motorists are witnessed to be the most law-bidding class of drivers on the city streets.

Another example of effective change occurred when smoking on scooters became illegal under the welcome auspice of - consideration for others. For the first weeks after implementation police were seen giving out fines for infringement and the practice declined dramatically, to relatively nonexistent. With a year passed and the no smoking and riding statute no longer enforced, like so many other provisions in Taiwan law, riding smokers are beginning to reappear sending the previous enforcement efforts unfortunately up in smoke.

Traveling across Taipei city on the recent May Day holiday was a unique and telling experience to the nature of local drivers. The Monday holiday traffic density was equal to weekdays at rush hour but likely due to rush hour lasting all day and the workers’ holiday, there were insufficient intersection management police or volunteers. Hence without education or disincentive fines dozens of intersections were selfishly gridlocked, pleasing no one.

This modern Taiwanese tale of woe goes on like a tragic novel with pleasant moments of future enlightenment, such the announcement that as of May 1 to earn a driver’s license Taiwanese must now pass a road test. Followed by frightening reminders of how far to go, like the May 3 report where the Taiwan Railways Administration claimed, “516 deadly railway (not traffic) accidents between 2012 and last year were caused by negligence by people who ignored traffic signals when passing over railway tracks or railway crossings.”

Evidently the nations leadership and derelict enforcement of its bountiful laws and regulations have contributed to the Hyde like behaviour of Taiwanese who have inflicted a litany of major food scandals and terrorize the roads.

When educated on the rules of the road and laws are enforced and incentivized, as in the above examples, Taiwanese have a demonstrated capacity to modify behaviours for the selfish and collective good. The Hyde’s currently terrorizing Taiwan’s roadways and marketplace can become the friendly Jekylls we know from the sidewalks and cafés.

Taiwan’s motorists would gladly welcome safer roads but are currently forced to wait at the intersection of civility and chaos for both effective leadership and law enforcement to change from red to green.

Justice must be blind to be fair, but it must never turn a blind eye to those that disregard its laws at society’s expense.