Time to Address Taiwan’s Driving Standards

Over the past two decades, Taiwan’s road network has been massively expanded. New freeways and expressways have shortened journey times. In urban areas, dozens of roads have been widened and straightened.
Even though the number of cars on the roads has increased, driving from one part of Taiwan to the other is now much quicker than it used to be. Unfortunately, infrastructure enhancements have not been matched by any significant improvements in the standard of driving.
Most local drivers are extremely tolerant when faced with slow or indecisive road-users, yet foreign drivers using Taiwan’s roads are more likely to comment on the recklessness and impatience they see every day.
The standard of driving in Taiwan is far from the worst in the world. But the behavior of ROC citizens on the road lags far behind the country’s overall level of development.
Driving practices frequently seen outside Taipei include running red lights, failing to indicate when turning or changing lanes, tailgating, passing slower vehicles on the right, and parking illegally. Using a cellphone while driving is common, and more than a few drivers let passengers get away without wearing seat belts.
Western expatriates often ask: How can such courteous and friendly people as those in Taiwan behave so ruthlessly on the roads?
Driving standards are an issue that deserves greater government attention, and not just for the sake of expatriates.
In addition to the emotional and financial impact on the families of victims, poor driving standards cause stress. They have a detrimental impact on the economy—by removing temporarily or permanently thousands of productive citizens from the workforce each year—and the environment.
It is counterintuitive, but poor driving standards actually increase the number of people who travel by car. Because some drivers show no concern for motorcycles or bicycles, do not give way to pedestrians, and park in a manner that obstructs sidewalks, people who might otherwise walk or ride a bicycle opt to drive.
As sensible road users are forced to exercise extreme caution, they drive more slowly than might otherwise be the case. Improving driving standards would result in faster traffic flows, which would benefit everyone.
There are three ways in which the government could lift driving standards.
The first is to reform the manner in which people learn to drive. Foreign visitors and expatriates feel shocked, and then enlightened, when they hear that local drivers learn maneuvers and are tested on dedicated driving circuits.
These specially designed courses bear scant resemblance to real-life driving environments, meaning drivers get their licenses without experiencing the variables that make urban driving so challenging.
Like their counterparts in the U.K. and U.S., Taiwan’s drivers would benefit from learning on real roads. Tests should be conducted on city streets, and candidates who cannot show competence in heavy traffic should not be allowed to pass.
Drivers who passed the old test and have had more than one accident should be forced to take the newer, more difficult exam. Of course, the government will have to carefully explain why the new test is more difficult, and why individuals who have been motoring for years have lost the right to drive.
Secondly, traffic laws should be more evenly enforced. The further one goes from urban centers, the fewer traffic police one sees. In the countryside, red lights are run with gay abandon and dangerous overtaking is common.
More traffic police would mean greater revenue from fines. Stricter enforcement would be self-financing, at least in the short term.
The authorities should also reward superior roadcraft. The Ministry of Transportation and Communications might consider introducing a higher-level driving test like that offered by the Institute of Advanced Motoring, a nongovernmental organization in the U.K. The institute’s test is recognized by insurers, with those who pass enjoying substantial discounts on motor insurance.
Thirdly, there should be a review of liability laws. As they now stand, if a car collides with a motorcycle, the former is almost always at fault, even if the latter’s recklessness caused the accident. This is a reason why so many of Taiwan’s two-wheelers do not ride defensively.
Improving Taiwan’s driving standards will not be easy. There are no obvious technological fixes, and it will require years of concerted effort at all levels. But targeted enforcement paired with public education can make a difference, as the fight against drunken driving shows.
Since the early 1990s, the ROC government has made considerable progress in reducing the problem of driving under the influence. Drivers are now less likely to get behind the wheel when intoxicated, and not only because they are afraid of getting caught and being fined up to NT$60,000 (US$1,900).
A campaign to improve driving standards requires determined political leadership. The pain would be felt early on, with the benefits not apparent until years later. However, it is by no means impossible that tourists visiting Taiwan in a decade or two’s time might tweet or blog: “We hired a car at the airport and explored the country. The scenery was excellent and the driving was a joy.”
Steven Crook is a freelance writer based in Tainan. Check out his iPhone app, Taiwan for Culture Vultures, on sale now!