The Ministry of Transportation and Communications has proposed increasing requirements on the age and weight below which children would be required to use rear-facing vehicle safety seats.
Improved safety regulations are good, but are unlikely to make roads safer unless accompanied by adequate enforcement. An accident in March last year left a four-month-old baby with a dented skull due to the parents’ alleged failure to secure the child properly in a car seat, despite regulations at the time requiring a car seat for children that age.
Many drivers who have developed unsafe habits have little motivation to change when there is inconsistent or ineffective enforcement. The ministry in March held a workshop for 76 repeat drunk driving offenders, requiring them to attend a lecture at a funeral home to impress upon them the consequences of drinking and driving, but some participants said the experience was unlikely to deter those determined to drink and drive.
The staggering number of repeat offenders confirms this. The government in May introduced legislation that would send repeat offenders who cause deaths to prison for life. This might be enough to convince people to think twice before drinking and driving, but only if the police actually crack down on road violations.
An opinion piece on the News Lens Web site on Jan. 16 last year said that officials have allegedly covered up how bad traffic conditions are in Taiwan by emphasizing metrics from Taipei, where enforcement is better. But even Taipei ranked among places worldwide with the highest number of traffic fatalities, with 3.29 incidents per 100,000 people — 12.2 incidents if including deaths after the first 24 hours.
The op-ed attributed the situation to Taiwan’s driving culture and drew comparisons with Japan, where there are one-fifth as many traffic fatalities, despite a similar density of vehicles on the road. Most traffic fatalities in Taiwan involve motorists riding scooters — there is nearly one scooter per household — and the government’s solution of giving traffic priority to scooters was only “putting a Band-Aid on the problem,” it said.
The nation’s driving culture becomes evident to anyone driving through an intersection, where motorists making left-hand turns often dart in front of oncoming vehicles instead of yielding. Combined with drivers who fail to use their turn signal, drivers who straddle two lanes — something taxis often seem to do — and drivers who commit all manner of other traffic violations, driving in Taiwan can lead to precarious situations.
As the op-ed said: “Driving in Taiwan is like being in an obstacle-course race, and drivers treat the rules of the road as a matter of interpretation.”
A 1994 study by Dominic Zaal, then of the Australian Office of Road Safety, found that strict enforcement of traffic laws should be accompanied by other measures to change driving behavior, but when other methods fail, traffic enforcement must be ramped up. For enforcement to be effective, drivers must be convinced that the risk of being caught is high. To achieve that, “existing enforcement levels need to be increased by a factor of at least three, and maintained over a long period of time,” the study said.
When drivers in the US or Canada see a police vehicle — which is common — they immediately reduce speed and practice proper driving behavior. Seeing police on the road in Taiwan fails to have the same effect. Taiwanese police rarely — if ever — pull drivers over for traffic violations. The police must make their presence felt on Taiwan’s roads.
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