Friday, 23 November 2012

Traffic Accident At Highway 1 Intersection In Sanhua

Glorious weather yesterday, no free time. Cloudy and wet today, have free time. On the one hand that's annoying because I still have to make many more research trips in southern Taiwan for photography purposes - and some of my pictures of the large reservoirs from earlier this year and last year must be re-shot. On the other hand, I feel tired and listless today after several late nights on the trot and I have a lot of stuff to catch up on, so bad weather today is maybe not such a great disadvantage.

I thought I'd post something I saw on my way back from Jianshanpi reservoir (尖山埤水庫) on Tuesday last week, as I was reminded of it due to this comment thread at Andrew Kerslake's blog. In Tainan County's Sanhua district, there is a major intersection along highway 1 with a Taiwan Beer brewery in the north-west corner and a couple of large convenience stores on either side of the intersection.

Heading south back into Tainan, I stopped at the Family Mart convenience store to gaze at the remains of a traffic accident; a Mercedes Benz had its' windshield smashed and its' front left corner done in - that damage having been caused by collision with a scooter, which had been ripped apart with various pieces (air filter, suspension coil etc) scattered all over the intersection for a radius of perhaps seven meters or more. The scooter driver had long since been taken away in an ambulance before I arrived on the scene, and the Benz driver was still standing beside his car shaking. The police were conducting traffic around the accident spot.

My immediate thought was that the scooter driver must be dead; I would be amazed if he had survived that. I asked a couple of bystanders if they had seen what had happened but they hadn't, so presumably one of the two parties had run through the intersection red light at high speed. My guess would be the scooter driver because of the kind of scooter it was and the various remains all indicating a teenager, (a relatively new, "crotch-rocket" type scooter, no mirrors, custom suspension coils, bowler helmet etc) and we all know some of those guys drive extremely dangerously...

The mainstream of opinion in Taiwan seems to be that stricter enforcement of the traffic laws and regulations will significantly reduce either the total accident rate, or the fatality rate on Taiwan's roads. I disagree with this. Taiwan does not have anything like the same culture as (say) Germany, and that very different culture supports a very different driving psychology. Here in Taiwan, deliberate ignorance of what is going on around you - i.e. choosing not to be aware, not to look, not to check mirrors, not to signal until it is too late (if at all) - is a very common psychological phenomena. In fact it is so common that I would say it is "normal"; it is the norm against which to anticipate the behaviour of other drivers. And I am certain - because I have seen it time and time again - that this psychology of ignorance is the principal cause of accidents and fatalities on Taiwan's roads. If that is correct, then I think it is unlikely that stricter law enforcement will improve matters.

Consider... for stricter law enforcement to produce behavioural change requires feedback: when a driver performs illegal behaviour X, he or she is then punished (e.g. with a fine for running a red light, or parking illegally). That works fine so long as the behaviours are those which are easily recorded and documented (e.g. via flash cameras at intersections or parking attendants). But if I am right that the principal cause of accidents and fatalities is a psychological "policy" of deliberate ignorance, then it is not clear how this behaviour can be recorded and documented - and consequently, no feedback loop can be established to induce behaviour change.

Let's empty out a couple of caveats... Of course, if video cameras for instance could show that a driver was at fault in an accident for not indicating appropriately, then that could work - but it would be limited. Law enforcement would only be able to punish that proportion of drivers with the "deliberate ignorance" policy who become caught up in accidents and not the surely much larger proportion of drivers who don't. So that would, at best, generate a very weak feedback loop between bad behaviour and punishment. Moreover, video cameras and the surveillance systems they imply are expensive and undesireable anyway for reasons having to do with civil liberty.

Stricter law enforcement may reduce the accident and/or fatality rate somewhat, but I suspect it is unlikely to be a very large effect due to the culture and the technological difficulty of monitoring driver psychology and "micro-behaviours" such as checking mirrors. For this and other reasons, I think it is better to look at civil, voluntary ways of promoting good driving and discouraging bad driving.

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