Friday, 13 August 2010

Road Safety vs Police Intimidation

So the Traffic Division of Taipei City Police is going to begin a "crackdown" (i.e. more legalized theft, threats of violence and stop-searches) on scooter drivers. The rationale given for this is to improve safety and lower the number of annual traffic fatalities.

I have long meant to write a (necessarily) very, very large piece on traffic and driving in Taiwan; this however, will simply be a quick note to the Timid Times:


The stated rationale for the Taipei City police "crackdown" on scooter drivers of improving road safety on which Mo Yan-chih reports today (Friday 13th August), is both false and dishonest. It is false to claim that police intimidation tactics reduce fatalities - if this really were so, then why haven't the police always maintained a high level of intimidation? It isn't as if the police will run out of money. That obvious logical objection aside however, the chief reason why police intimidation does not improve road safety is that most traffic accidents are caused not by violation of traffic laws, but by the criminal negligence of drivers. There is nothing more important to a good driver than what is happening on the road around him at all times - a driver who does not pay scrupulous attention to the road at all times is a dangerous driver, even when, and perhaps especially when, he or she behaves within the enforceable scope of traffic laws. For example, failure to check mirrors properly, signaling too late and even outright day-dreaming are all extremely dangerous and extremely common behaviours which are not, and cannot be adequately captured by traffic law. Merely enforcing traffic law with more gusto will have zero effect on behaviours such as this that actually do cause traffic accidents. All this being the case, it is hard to avoid attaching a conclusion of dishonesty to this claim that police intimidation tactics do actually reduce fatalities. I would gladly examine any statistical evidence to suggest otherwise.

Aside from issues of infrastructure quality, maintenance (or lack thereof) and ownership, the principle solution to the problem of poor road safety must be psychological in the sense of education and normative pressure toward promoting road awareness and shifting drivers' sense of responsibility away from robotic observance of traffic laws and toward ourselves as fully cognizant adults capable of paying attention to the road and thinking about what we are doing. Such solutions however, cannot be mandated by government laws and least of all by this country's utterly absurd and worthless licensing system. It is impossible to force people to think by threatening them with violence; it is a responsibility that people have to take upon themselves and encourage among others by social pressure - not the violence of government. To believe otherwise is to commit oneself to the childishly nonsensical and yet monstrously common precept of mind control.

Yours freely,
Michael Fagan.

(Sent: Friday 13th August 2010. Published in the Taipei Times Thursday 19th August)

Update: there seems to be the germ of an argument on this topic over at J.Michael Cole's place.


  1. Hi Michael,

    I'm the person who responded partly in jest to your post on The Far-Eastern Sweet Potato. My comment there was generated by the (extremely anecdotal) evidence of my own move from Taichung to Taipei, where I discovered to my surprise (and delight) that a majority of drivers in Taipei actually yield to pedestrians rather than ignore them completely (as is the case everywhere else I've been in Taiwan).

    This "improvement" in driving hasn't come from people suddenly becoming more polite. It certainly hasn't come about because drivers in Taipei somehow have more common sense than the other drivers in Taiwan. The only thing that's different here to the rest of Taiwan is that if you break the rules, you're much more likely to be caught and fined.

    Don't get me wrong: here in Taipei I see the same negligent and reckless driving on a daily basis that you do. I bemoan the fact that there's no "traffic regulation" that would allow the police to stop "the idiot who cut three people off to make a right turn at high speed". Unfortunately, I don't see any adequate solution to making people see what for you and me is basically common sense - in fact it seems that something radical must change if the people of Taiwan are to act responsibly and sensibly on the roads.

    It seems it's extremely difficult for many people to grasp the concept of "Hey, don't run that light, what if you kill a pedestrian?" but it's very easy for them to understand "Run a red light, get photographed and pay a fine."

    By way of example to illustrate my frustrations with the cultural influence on traffic in Taiwan, I was in Taichung for Chinese New Year last year, and witness to a relative of a friend planning on riding home drunk. "Don't do that," I warned. "What if you have an accident and kill someone or wind up dead?" Needless to say, I was admonished for mentioning "death" at Chinese New Year and no-one in the room saw the sense of what I was saying. I'm sure if said individual had met with an accident it would have been my fault for mentioning it, rather than her fault for driving home inebriated.

    I suppose I should say that I am not a fan of overly-zealous traffic enforcement. Driving in the UK is a nightmare (and made much more dangerous!) because you have to constantly check your speed and watch for speed cameras. On the other hand, the UK is a country where most drivers HAVE the common sense that seems to be lacking here and the reckless and insane are the minority. Maybe a good dose of enforcement is what's necessary to stop the irresponsibility.

    Hope you have a pleasant and safe weekend.

    Kind regards,

  2. Thanks for your comment Steve, but thought I recognize where you're coming from I can't agree with your insistence on the need for traffic law enforcement, let alone increasing such enforcement.

    Even if I were to grant the possibility that the roads could be made safer by yet stricter enforcement of traffic laws – which seems to me a difficult assertion to maintain anyway – I would still argue against it on other grounds, some related and some not.

    First, as I mention in my letter above, I think the main cause of traffic accidents is psychological in the lack of attention and thought that drivers put into the task of staying alive on the roads. To compensate for these deficiencies by simple traffic law enforcement, the sheer number of these laws and the extent of the resources allocated for enforcing them would have to be of such an order of magnitude as to effectively create a police state. You would quite literally need to have 24 hour police surveillance cameras at every intersection (although I understand this is swiftly becoming a reality in Taipei) as well as an extensive and armed police presence along every major arterial road. This is not a price worth paying, and I for one, will not pay for it in any event.

    Second, driving is of necessity a dangerous activity. Even within a police state there would always be needless accidents (I’m even inclined to think there may be more actually). The value of road safety must be balanced against other values – such as getting from A to B with a certain degree of time efficiency. Since people are different and have different goals and priorities, they will therefore calculate such trade-offs differently. Robbing them of their ability to do this by totalitarian enforecement of even petty traffic laws would result in far more than just an inefficient traffic system; it would be a violation of what makes us human – our ability to think for ourselves and prioritise according to our own particular value selections. To advocate something like this is a betrayal of the value of freedom and the fact from which it stems that, whatever their mistakes, people are nevertheless capable of managing their own lives.

    As to the solution, it lies with you and me and everyone else as individuals – the responsibity is always ours even if some of us choose to delegate it to government. Confront people about their mistakes on the road when you can and explain to them why you think what they are doing is wrong and how they should change their behaviour. I do this all the time. You might be surprised at how many Taiwanese will listen to you. Never allow yourself to be afraid of them – always stand your ground and let them have it in Mandarin.

    Of course this approach would not solve the problem overnight, but neither would yours and neither of us has any right to use the violence of government to hammer other people’s lives into shapes that fit our preferences.

  3. I totally agree with you, MIke.
    One thing that bugs me, is that when you say we should, as you say, "confront their bad behaviour," Taiwnese people's reaction is, "hey, don't make noise about it, the guy is just a low-class person, and he could be a gangster, and hurt and kill you." Why this ridiculous cowering in fear everywhere people go? Be it my own Canada, here in Taiwan, in the U.S., or U.K., everybody is too afraid to do anything because of their fear of government, police, gangsters, peer pressure, or some b.s. politically correct line! Isn't it time everybody was wearing of all this?

  4. "Why this ridiculous cowering in fear everywhere people go?"

    Someone was shot dead in front of his little girl in Taichung while I was there because he told off the wrong traffic offender.

    Mike, I hear where you're coming from on the police enforcement, and I dislike it as much as you do. I just don't have a lot of hope for the alternatives.

    In general, I find it difficult to explain to the Taiwanese what makes reckless driving so dangerous. I feel that many people here believe that pointing out negative consequences will cause them to happen, and so they deliberately ignore possible dangers (e.g. not looking when pulling out of a side-street). In their eyes, this absolves them of responsibility and will somehow ensure that bad things don't happen.

    It's an uphill struggle to educate people out of this mindset. Perhaps I lack tact when I explain in Mandarin, but I don't think there is even a word in Chinese for "cut someone off".


  5. Steve said "Someone was shot dead in front of his little girl in Taichung while I was there because he told off the wrong traffic offender."

    @Steve It happens, but it's not the norm. In fact, I saw more shocking things on a daily basis in Montreal. Canada also has serial killers, too. That kind of thing is extremely rare in Taiwan, as well. Just because something happened once when you were there doesn't mean it's the norm. Frequency and quality of such incidents do matter in such cases.

  6. Thoth, I think Steve's point is germane, even though it leads into a more general discussion of self-defence.

    The importance of judgement prior to confronting an aggressor (what people often wrongly call "cowardice") is paramount to staying alive - especially in a culture in which ownership of firearms is almost unthinkable.

    However, the attempt to educate people to slow down and look first before pulling out of a side street is something you do out of interest for your own safety - just as looking first at who you are going to confront before confronting him is also something you do out of self-concern.

    Steve: Gratuitous, murdering violence like that happens all over the island, but from what I hear it seems Taichung may have it a bit worse than the other cities.

  7. Actually Steve, there are things you can do, but whether you can make the time for them and to what extent they work are open questions. Writing down short but firmly worded educational messages and sticking them onto the car of the guy who cut you off is sometimes possible.

  8. Sure, we should choose our battles. I was not labeling all forms of carefulness as cowardice. However, everyone is too afraid to do anything here. I don't believe in playing nicey-nice at every turn. I can't stand that kind of attitude; it just drives me nuts.

    The incident Steven mentioned is quite famous. I suspect it will continue lingering in the public psyche here for many years to come, unless such incidents become so common as to erode memories of any one single incident.

  9. Thoth - I tried googling for that story, but ended up with a lot of anti-foreigner stuff. I'd be interested to know the details of what happened...


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