Just How Bad Is It?

While it now appears that Shaw Hsiao-ling (邵曉鈴), wife of Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強), is going to survive the crash that nearly took her life, she has reportedly only recovered 70% of her brain functions. She able to talk, but using only single words, and now recognises her family. However, she is not able to fully comprehend the loss of her arm and is almost certain to never walk again.

It would be nice to say that the cause of this accident was not human error. It might be nice to say that the human error wasn’t typical of driving in Taiwan. However, while the incident sounds shocking – it is shocking after all – this kind of driving is all too typical.

The accident was caused by a driver illegally undertaking a truck on the hard shoulder, only to misjudge the distances and bounce off the barrier to go careering across the road, smashing straight into the mayor’s vehicle.

While this may not be such a common sight, it’s hard not to notice the daily floutings of the law that will have people driving the wrong way down one way streets, running red lights, pulling over or stopping without any thought to those behind, or teenagers racing each other as the evenings wear on.

Everyone sees it. Everyone knows it happens. Pretty much every foreigner to ever come to Taiwan thinks it’s simply awful. But is it really as bad as we think it is?

There are several manifest problems in answering this question. The first and most important is the apparent lack of reliable data regarding Taiwan. The World Health Organisation, for example, does not recognise Taiwan as an independent country and therefore data is conspicuously lacking in its road accident reports.

The data provided on the governmental sites is patchy at best. Most importantly, of course, is the fact that so few of Taiwan’s collisions are reported. Particularly if nobody has been maimed or killed, the perpetrators of the incident will be readily seen dusting themselves off and getting on their merry way again.

No point in calling the cops if no real damage has been done. So we must forever bear in mind that there are, “lies, damned lies and … ”. You know the drill.

Even so, the scraps that are to be had are both shocking and frightening in equal measure. The first figure I’ll throw at you is that there were 2,718 traffic deaths and 152,080 injuries in 2003 . At first it simply sounds like just another number but it’s actually worth sitting back and thinking about for a second.

Roughly 155,000 reported accidents in one year. Of a population of 23m. That works out at a rate of one accident resulting in an injury serious enough to report – or death – for every 148 people. In 2003 alone. Even more worrying is that that figure is now rising year-on-year.

Believe it or not, it’s actually getting worse even though almost every single person in the whole of Taiwan will personally know or know of someone who is involved in a serious crash every single year of their lives.

And here’s a figure that will produce a wry smile on the face of any foreigner who’s lived here for a while. Statistics complied by the National Police Agency (NPA) reported that 96.7 percent of road accident deaths were caused by human errors. The reasons? “Drink driving, negligent driving and driving above the speed limit”.

It’s worse in rural areas, where road traffic rules are invariably ignored as much as they are adhered to. Hualien provides the perfect example of this. 2006 saw a total of 85 reported accidents leading to a total of 89 deaths. It is true that these figures were 30% down on the 2005 figures, when 111 accidents led to 122 killed, but the more interesting aspect of this is the cause.

A full 50% of all accidents were caused by drunk driving. Half of all accidents were people drunk at the wheel. This quite simply would not occur abroad and comes, in fact, as quite a shock to someone like me.

The other causes quoted were precisely the same as mentioned above, essentially the most basic principles of driving anywhere – don’t run red lights and don’t stray too far from the speed limit. These are far too often ignored.

Despite urban areas having vast numbers of vehicles on the roads, most deaths occur out of town.

Why? People essentially don’t think about their safety. Don’t wear seat belts. Don’t wear helmets.

It’s almost as if the event of a crash simply isn’t anticipated or planned for in the same way a Westerner might have been brought up to.

This is surely most horrifying in the case of children. Kids hanging on to the wing mirrors of Dad’s scooter on the way to school in a daily sight but it’s again quite saddening to consider the other end of this, the consequences of the negligence.

A survey released this month showed that, “80 percent of children seeking medical treatment for traffic accident injuries were not wearing a helmet, not wearing a seat belt, or not seated in a child safety seat at the time when their injuries occurred”.

Isn’t it ironic that Taiwanese invest so much in their children’s future, and yet are so seemingly irresponsible when it comes to road safety? It comes across as baffling to many Western folk, so I thought it worthwhile spending some time asking why road safety is so often ignored here.

The answer was even more ironic. The lesser aspect of it is that the law prescribing the universal use of helmets on scooters and motorbikes and belts in cars was only introduced on June 1st, 1997, meaning that there are two entire generations still on the roads who were previously quite unused to these things.

Before the law was passed, there was barely a helmet to be seen (only 20% as compared to the current 95%). Older generations, apparently, largely wear helmets because they must, but do not in fact see them as being necessary items. You might be mistaken for thinking that perhaps this doesn’t extend to children, and that’s why there are so many unprotected children to be seen.

However, it is a mistake. The law demands protection be worn by all. So the problem doesn’t lie there. Somewhat surprisingly, the greater part of it stems from the traditional Taiwanese aversion to thinking about or discussing death or injury.

Taiwanese simply don’t like to think about the nastier sides of what could happen when driving. “Taiwanese people are positive in their outlook. They don’t like to think about such depressing things as that…” as an astute Taiwanese friend put it.

This means that the ugly consequences of not equipping junior with the cheap and readily available helmets that line many a store front are generally not dealt with on a day-to-day basis.

Because Taiwanese find it distasteful to consider the horrible, horrible things that can come as a result of laxness on the road, they are untold times more likely to be involved in precisely those same horrible consequences that so scare them.

Such an enormous number of accidents in Taiwan could be so very easily avoided. So many injuries on the part of children perched so precariously on their parents’ scooters quite simply do not have to happen.

Despite this now being an aspect of Taiwanese culture that I have looked into and now understand, I have to admit that it’s a part of the local psyche that I can safely say will forever be beyond me.

Seeing a child acting as a potential air bag will make my heart sink every single time.

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine (republished in Highway 11 magazine), 2008

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