by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Lord Koxinga/WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 3.0

FLASH MOBS INVOLVING hundreds demonstrated earlier this month for pedestrian safety in Taiwan. The flash mobs were coordinated to take place across Taiwan, taking place in Taipei, New Taipei, Taichung, Tainan, Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Kaohsiung,

The flash mobs were partly a reaction to the death of a three-year-old in Tainan at the start of the month while she and her mother were crossing on a pedestrian crosswalk. Nevertheless, while the incident was honed in on by the media because it involved the death of a child, such accidents occur daily in Taiwan.

Accidents can often involve children or the elderly. There were 15,589 injuries from traffic accidents last year. This proves similar to 13,787 injuries in 2011. The first ten months of 2022 saw 2,560 road fatalities.

Incidents of drivers failing to yield to pedestrians have increased in 2022, with 50,832 cases reported compared to 32,464 cases in 2021. This is likely due to the effects of COVID-19 in 2021, however.

At times, government officials have suggested that there is little they can do about the issue. In March, Chen Ying-jung, Director of the Department of Transportation, Environment and Natural Resources of the Construction and Planning Agency, stated that it would take one hundred years to improve Taiwan’s issues with traffic safety–rather absurd comments, when the history of widespread car usage is not much more than one hundred years old.

But to this extent, another factor in the increased focus on the issue of pedestrian safety in Taiwan in past years is because of the potential that this could affect international perceptions of Taiwan. A CNN report last year referred to Taiwan as a “pedestrian hell”. and having “battlefield-like” traffic conditions. The “pedestrian hell” label in particular has hit a nerve, as a term that is now regularly referenced in Chinese-language media reporting on traffic conditions in Taiwan.

Headquarter of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications. Photo credit: Solomon203/WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 3.0

To this extent, media often cites reports by foreign governments on traffic conditions in Taiwan. The US Department of State urges “caution when crossing streets because many drivers do not respect the pedestrian’s right of way” in its travel advisory for Taiwan, while the Canadian government states that “Motorcycles and scooter drivers don’t respect traffic laws. They are extremely reckless.” In 2021, the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association phrased it as that “Taiwan’s drivers are inclined to prioritize vehicles over pedestrians. […] Even if you’re on the sidewalk, you must still watch for scooters.”

As with its approach to many social issues, including violent crime, the government has sought to respond to the issue by stiffening penalties for traffic violations. Earlier this year, penalties for drivers of small vehicles failing to yield to pedestrians were increased from 2,000 NT to 3,600 NT, while the penalty for drivers of large commercial vehicles was also increased to 3,600 NT from 2,800 NT. The penalty for motorcycles and scooters stayed the same at 1,200 NT. Fines are higher for vehicles failing to yield to visually impaired individuals, with 4,800 NT in fines for car drivers and 7,200 for truck or bus drivers. Penalties for failing to move forward at a red traffic light were increased from 900 NT to 1,200 NT for scooters, 1,500 NT for cars, and 1,800 NT for trucks or buses.

Likewise, in this timeframe, the Taiwanese police have launched a new campaign to educate about the issue. Pedestrians have been called on to film and photograph traffic violations to enforce penalties.

It is questionable whether this punitive approach will resolve Taiwan’s issues with pedestrian safety. Namely, such issues are rooted in how traffic planning in Taiwan privileges drivers over pedestrians, and it is widely known that driver education in Taiwan is lax–even for bus and taxi drivers. Drivers are not sufficiently aware that they should yield to pedestrians and, in many cases, neither do pedestrians know they have the right of way. Nevertheless, long-term, systematic educational approaches, rather than punitive ones, may be a long coming when the government instead relies on quick punitive measures.

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