Taiwan's Road Safety Reports Mask a Worsening Record

Taiwan's Road Safety Reports Mask a Worsening Record
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
What you need to know

Taiwan is a famously safe place to live, work and travel. Yet crossing the road or driving a scooter is like dicing with death.

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Taiwan is at the bleeding edge of road traffic safety.

At a car park near Taipei 101 there is a regularly updated notice (with obligatory “fun” cartoon) that provides the number of road traffic deaths and injuries every month. It has become a game with my kids to guess what the new figures are. They are, without fail, always higher than the previous month.

“The real monsters are cars and motorbikes,” I tell my kids. After all, it’s not wild creatures under the bed, animals, stranger danger, terrorists or an act of God that are likely to kill or maim as much as drivers.

Every year about 1.3 million people are wiped out in road crashes and as many as 50 million injured, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank. That’s more than 3,500 people dying daily, most of them kids, the elderly, pedestrians and cyclists. These figures are set to increase by 65 percent over the next 20 years if nothing changes. And of course, nothing will.

For perspective, there are something like 80 shark attacks a year globally, but fatalities are rare. Iraq led the world in terms of terrorist attacks in 2016, with 9,764 fatalities, nearly twice as many as second-place Afghanistan. There have been as many diagnoses of AIDS in the United States since the epidemic began in the early 1980s as there are road traffic deaths or injuries in a year.

We passively accept the risk to life and limb of road accidents because we have little choice and few alternatives. Speed is everything. It kills but that is the price we are prepared to pay for shorter journey times, next-day delivery and reduced costs.

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Credit: Jules Quartly
Safe spaces for pedestrians are notional at best.

Taiwan is at the bleeding edge of road traffic safety. The only evidence required is your eyes. As a pedestrian, it is tempting to believe that inviting green avenue painted on the road, with the man in the hat walking a child, represents a safe space. What it really foreshadows is danger, as cars and scooters drive through or park with impunity. Pedestrian crossings? They are ground zero of the battle between automobile and man – with only one winner.

Yet, if you read reports about Taiwan road safety, you may be forgiven for thinking the situation is improving. A CNA report earlier in January, for example, claims that fatalities have “fallen steadily since peaking in 2006.” The story quotes Hsieh Ming-hong (謝銘鴻), executive secretary of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC), Road Traffic Safety Commission, who describes the death toll as “like having a 921 earthquakes every year.”

Actually, Mr Hsieh, it’s not. The 1999 earthquake killed 2,415 people and injured 11,305. According to the latest National Road Traffic Safety Commission report, in December, over the past four years an average of 3,000 people nationwide died annually in traffic accidents, with about 397,000 injured.

Let’s back up a little, to the car park near Taipei 101 and the Taipei City Government notice detailing traffic accidents. In October, this is given as 55 deaths and 23,662 injuries; in November, it was 59 deaths and 25,938 injuries; while in December, it was 65 deaths and 28,773 injuries. The deaths and injuries have gone up at a similar rate since I started noting the figures at the beginning of 2017. Meanwhile, the number of cars registered in Taiwan is at about the same level as 2010, namely 21.7 million.

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Credit: Jules Quartly
This composite photo shows how traffic deaths and injuries rose in the last three months of 2017, according to signs posted in the car park under Xinyi Guoxiao School, near Taipei 101.

Asked for further information about these figures, Taipei City Government’s Transport Safety Division helpfully confirmed they were correct. Nevertheless, it countered by providing a graph showing there were fewer deaths on the capital’s roads in 2017 (up to December), compared with the average from 2010 to 2016. This conclusion is arrived at by including only “Category A” deaths, or deaths within 24 hours of an accident. What this means, of course, is that anyone who has an accident and takes a few days to pass away is not included.

In another set of graphed figures forwarded by Transport Safety, which includes death and injuries after 24 hours, the rate steadily increases over the past seven years. If I was part of Transport Safety and worried about my job, I would do some creative accounting and cast my net a bit wider for some good news. Hence, the heavily publicized figures showing that Taipei is better than other cities around the country in terms of road traffic accidents per 100,000 people.

This metric is the standard baseline for comparing road traffic accidents around the world. Accordingly, Taipei scores 3.29, Amsterdam 1.79, Melbourne 2.62, Shanghai 3.84, and Hai Phong in Vietnam 4.93. This is for deaths in the first 24 hours after an accident. If deaths after 24 hours are included, the figure for 2016 was 12.2 deaths per 100,000 people. Either way, compared with most developed or rich countries, which Taiwan technically is, road safety is poor.

Having established this, let’s look at why. According to Transport Safety, scooters are the principal reason for traffic fatalities, accounting for 50-60 percent of the total every year (though some estimates elsewhere are as high as 80 percent). Given there is nearly one scooter per household (0.94), they are difficult to “extract out of life” because they are cheap (and cheap to run), easy to park and convenient.

While anecdotally I have been told the scooter manufacturing and supply lobby is powerful and against change, Transport Safety has adopted four strategies to improve safety, namely: “correct driving behavior,” upgrading scooters, giving scooters right of way, and managing parking. To my mind, this is like putting a band aid on a gaping wound.

It doesn’t have to be like this. In addition to having fewer scooters, driving in Japan is like competing in a politeness contest. Winners give way, those who pass wave a grateful thanks (“No, you go first,” “No you go first, first”). Driving in Taiwan, on the other hand, is like being in an obstacle course race; and drivers treat the rules of the road as a matter of interpretation.

Consequently, Japan’s National Police Agency figures show traffic deaths have hit an all-time low since records began in 1949. In 2017 there were about 10 fatalities per day (as opposed to Taiwan’s eight) for a population that is five times greater. The reasons given for this are stricter enforcement of road traffic rules and the spread of advanced technologies, particularly automatic breaking and autonomous driving.

Meanwhile, Taiwan has prioritized drunk driving in recent years and is now stressing road safety education, particularly to children. While this is good news and may pay dividends in the future, it doesn’t help now. Nor does fiddling with statistics and massaging the truth. If you don’t admit a problem, you can’t deal with it. Keeping scooters on the road when it’s proven how dangerous and polluting they are is a recipe for further disaster. Ignoring the benefits of autonomous driving technologies is another fail.

It’s going to be decades, if ever, before Taiwan’s roads can be considered safe. In the meantime, the morbid guessing game of how many more deaths there were last month compared with the previous will continue.

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