The Directorate-General of Highways (DGH) has decided for the time being not to consider building a freeway between Suao Township (蘇澳) in Yilan County and Hualien County on the east coast. Instead, government planners favor a realigned Suao-Hualien Highway, or Suhua Highway, that runs through mountainous terrain.
The news is a slap in the face for newly elected Hualien County Commissioner Fu Kun-chi (傅崑萁) because the freeway was a key part of his election campaign.
The issue has been politicized from the beginning, and the DGH is to be admired for dealing with the matter on its merits. Still, the timing of the decision so soon after the election is bound to be interpreted as having political connotations. If the public had taken part in the planning process at an earlier stage, voters would not have been taken in by exaggerated campaign slogans.
Policymaking may be based on expertise, but giving the public a chance to discuss and endorse policies would make Taiwanese politics more rational.
The DGH has yet to give details of the plan, so it is not clear how the estimated NT$40 billion (US$1.24 billion) budget will be spent. But if an 80km corridor is to be built through the mountains, a great deal of money will be spent on tunneling. If that is the the case, drivers on the new highway will no longer gasp with nervous admiration as their vehicles cling to winding roads carved out of the cliff face.
This realignment appears inevitable because of safety considerations. But in fact, it relies on a misunderstanding of what makes the road unsafe. The road is not so unsafe, as it happens. It’s not falling boulders that are the problem.
The most dangerous part of the present Suhua Highway is its northern section. The road here winds through the mountains, with most accidents involving trucks that drive dangerously, causing about 10 deaths and 100 injuries each year. Rock falls, which people talk about so much, mostly happen in the middle section. Aside from 2007, when there was an exceptionally high number of typhoons, rock falls only affect traffic for one week a year, on average, and for two to four hours each time.
Apart from erosion, the main cause of rock falls is vibration, year after year, from overweight, speeding trucks. Gravel trucks carrying excessive loads are the biggest killers. If these were properly regulated, driving on the highway would be much safer.
Other, secondary problems can be addressed in a number of ways. Instead of tackling the root problem, however, the DGH is giving pride of place to construction. The new plan cuts the price down to NT$40 billion, compared with NT$100 billion for a freeway, but it is still an awful lot of money. How much safety will we get in return? Isn’t this a case of overinvestment?
There are innumerable instances of excessively protective construction all around us, and all in the name of safety. Life is precious, it’s true, but sometimes measures taken to ensure safety — even in addressing negligence or intentionally dangerous behavior — can make public spaces very dull. For example, we all have to put up with railings around lakes and ponds and paved walkways that pass for mountain trails.
Safety can also be a rationalization for paternalistic bureaucrats treating the public like children. The controversy over moving whole mountain villages following Typhoon Morakot is an obvious example. The government started out with the laudable motive of preventing more disasters, but villagers now fear losing their homes, their land and everything else, including their culture. The issues involved are obviously complex, so why should the only means of survival require cutting people off from their roots?
Shouldn’t several solutions be considered, weighed against their cost and disadvantages? Shouldn’t responsibility for risk be borne in the first place by the risk taker? Why must we always have to look to the authorities, and the authorities alone, to ensure safety in society?
There is another question we should ask of those who demand absolute safety and proclaim a charter of government protection for all: What do they think about plans to rebuild roads that can carry tourist buses to Alishan (阿里山), despite the fact that regulations now ban further development there following a spate of natural disasters?
What about the decades-old problem of forests, which protect hillsides from erosion, being cut down and replaced with vegetable plots and tea plantations? Clearly, the concept of safety can be manipulated. When it’s a matter of allocating funds to building a new road between Suao and Hualien, safety is the trump card that works the cash machine. But when industrial development is the priority, safety concerns are forgotten entirely.
When safety is manipulated to serve special interests, society pays a heavy price. Just as freedom cannot be ensured through laws alone, safety cannot be mandated by policymakers alone. We need to find a point of equilibrium.
Hochen Tan is chairman of the Taiwan Ecological Engineering Development Foundation.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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