Friday, February 09, 2007

How dangerous is it to drive on the Beautiful Isle?

When I was in LA last week I had occasion to consult the traffic fatality data for Los Angeles County (available on the NHTSA website). Last month, the Taipei Times reported:

As a result of the measure, however, the bureau said that although traffic citations had decreased from an average of 20 million per year before 2005 down to 10 million per year in 2005, deaths caused by traffic accidents had risen from 4,322 in 2002 to 4,735 in 2005.

The death toll was projected to reach to 5,000 last year.

The nation's death rate resulting from traffic incidents is higher than that of the US and Japan, the bureau said.

While about 21 individuals per 100,000 people died in traffic accidents in Taiwan last year, the number was about 15 in the US and seven in Japan.

The US figure is 14.66 per hundred thousand, for Taiwan it is 21, and for LA county? It's a piddling 7.55, or about one-third of the figure in Taiwan. Sadly, the government pledged a decade ago to reduce the death rate to under 9 per hundred thousand....

Naturally, though, things are not that simple. Facts are constructions of methodologies, and each country has its own. How does Taiwan stack up? The problem may be illustrated by this comment in a New Zealand government report from September of last year:

While ascertainment and recording of road traffic deaths is high in countries like New Zealand, there is still country to country variation in completeness of reporting, and some definitions, as outlined in the previous report. These include the time period following the crash in which deaths must occur in order to be counted as traffic deaths. The standard is now 30 days, but it is not universally applied, even in neighbouring countries. A traffic fatality in Spain, Greece and Portugal is one that occurs in the first 24 hours, in France 6 days and in Italy 7 days. Variation also occurs in whether crashes on private roads are included, and whether confirmed suicides or natural deaths are included. There has been considerable improvement in standardisation of these measures in the past decade in IRTAD member countries.

This problem is a common one anytime mortality rates are discussed. For example, the US is often pummeled for having high infant mortality rates, but if you look up the country-by-country definition, in some countries, even advanced ones, it isn't counted as an infant until it has been out of the mother for 24 hours. You can do wonders for your mortality statistics if you don't count the babies who die in the first 24 hours as being born. For traffic fatalities, the US uses the thirty day standard. Taiwan, according to what I have been able to dredge up, uses two different definitions, one by the Dept. of Health, the other from the police (ten year old data) who use a 24 hour standard. Consequently, the DOH reports twice as many fatalities as the police do. Since so many accidents are not reported to the police, some adjustment for undercounting must be made. I cannot find any data on how suicides are accounted for, or whether pedestrians killed on sidewalks in Taiwan by motorcycles are counted.

To expand on some comments I made over in the realm of Roy on a post on driving, when I was in LA, I walked all the way up Santa Monica Blvd, save a section by bus, from Ocean Ave, and cut over to Wilshire and back to UCLA, a couple of hours in all (one of my favorite things to do is to walk all the way across a city taking pictures). Perhaps LA drivers were not on their game that day, but not once did I see a red light run. Not once did I see anyone make an illegal turn on left. Not once did I saw drivers continue to make left turns after the light changed or rush into the intersection in the time both lights were red, or run the red light while the left turn signal was green but the straight signal was red. Nobody ran the length of a line of cars waiting to make a left to line up in front. Nobody was committing traffic infractions in front of a policeman, an event I have video'd and photo'd many times in Taiwan (I did see cops pull cars over twice for infractions). At the entrance ramp for the 405 expressway in front of the Federal Building on Wilshire, though the traffic had backed up onto Wilshire, I saw no cars attempting to run the length of the line of waiting vehicles and push their way in at the exit, which is par for the course in Taiwan -- though I stood there for several minutes watching for just that. Instead, people patiently lined up and waited. The traffic flowed. Tellingly, at rush hour in LA it was not necessary to have the police physically directing traffic at intersections.

I'm sure veteran LA drivers have seen all those things once or twice. But you don't see them day in and day out in LA, like you would in Taiwan.

I was thinking about this as I was waiting to make a left today, and the driver behind me, impatient, attempted to make a blind left turn on the inside of my left. We long-term expats have gotten so used to living in Taiwan that we've become habituated to it, and the differences between Taiwan and a country where the traffic is well regulated and drivers have internalized civic culture are harder for us to see. Laugh though we may, in some ways it's the indignant letter-to-the-editor-writing newbies who might have a better handle on how things stack up between Over Here and Over There.


Anonymous said...

Good point Michael, I'm from Boston and just returned from my vacation in LA. I've noticed that drivers (in Sothern Cal) are less aggressive on the road. I think in LA you have an enviroment where it is easy for drivers both experienced or novice. You have local roads that have 4-5 lanes, and highways with 5-7 lanes. Plus, all roads are flate and straight. The traffic lights are around 1/2 mile apart. I think you'll noticed that the situation is not the same in Boston and Taipei. Nice post.

Anonymous said...

The scooters-driving-into-the- crosswalk-on-the-right-and-lining-up method of making a left turn is what gets me.

Unknown said...

Speaking of L.A. where are those L.A. photos.

dtwja said...

Hi Michael. That's not what I expected to read. Do you suppose it's possible that the preponderance of smaller vehicles including scooters might explain the higher fatality rate? I came up with some interesting statistics trying to correct for mass, but of course there's the problem of statistics and lies, and not having any real information on what the "median mass" is for vehicles in Taiwan.

Thanks for the post. Interesting stuff. I think you'll probably find this article from Freeman Dyson interesting as well in regards to statistics about traffic fatalities.

skiingkow said...

I'm somewhat in disagreement here.

First of all, let me say that during my 5 years in Taiwan -- not once did I attempt to drive there quite frankly scared the crap out of me to even consider it.

However, I do NOT believe that -- IF YOU ARE A SEASONED TAIWANESE DRIVER -- you are putting yourself at more danger than if you were in Los Angeles or such places. There is a "culture" of driving in every country, for lack of a better word. While the Taiwanese are much more agressive, the idea of "consistency" and "conformity" is more important for influencing the rate of traffic accidents, IMO. In my experience, the Taiwanese are very consistent with the way they drive. It may seem like chaos to a foreigner, but, again, that is relative to what culture you were brought up in.

Let me put it another way. If you "understand" the way people drive in your country -- you can anticipate what others do in certain traffic situations. When that anticipation is there -- it is no different than if we assume that everyone stops at a red light in North America. When one assumes differently, however, there are consequences.

And so the paradox in Taiwan. It is an "organized chaos" driving there (which extends to other aspects of life, as well).

More dangerous? It is if you don't understand the driving culture there.

Having said that though -- there are other rules of law which definitely should be more closely watched. Laws such as "children wearing helmets" and passengers wearing seatbelts in the back seat. The focus should be on these moreso than "following traffic sign rules".

Michael Turton said...

Hi ALex,

Yes, the scooters are the big reason for the differing environment and the higher fatality rates. That thing on Smeed's Law was really interesting.

Anonymous said...

look, if you want Taiwan to be like your beloved USA, then go back there and live with Irak and all that. you get what you pay for, sir. why do you want Taiwan to be like your effing country? typical foreigners you are...................complain complain will probly delte my post here too.....figures

Michael Turton said...

look, if you want Taiwan to be like your beloved USA, then go back there and live with Irak and all that. you get what you pay for, sir. why do you want Taiwan to be like your effing country?

Why stop there? Let's go back to the Qing, when magistrates punished people at random hoping to scare the criminals. I mean, all this change since then has just been a stupid waste. You're right -- Imagining or working for a Taiwan that is clean and safe and well-run is just silly. Listen, I'll call the EPA, the RDEC, and IDB, and other development and environmental agencies and tell them to shut down. You can take over, and preserve important Taiwan traditions like driving with three kids on a motorcycle with no helmets, because it would just be too much like my country to put helmets on them....


Unknown said...

Maybe LA drivers are so law-abiding not due to the efforts of the cops, but due to the odds of getting into a confrontation with an armed and irate driver?

Jokes aside, I'm sure Taiwan's death rate would be even higher but for the low average speeds which vehicles reach here.

Anonymous said...

"Stop Ma", although you suggest that 1) "foreigners" can't
understand Taiwanese "driving culture", and state that 2)
it's only dangerous "if you don't understand the driving
culture", do you mean to conclude that 3) the high rate of
traffic fatalities in Taiwan is actually caused by the
inability of "foreigners" to understand Taiwanese culture?

Anonymous said...

I lived in TX for a year. I have seen more accidents there than anywhere else in my entire life. Driving in the US is relaxed, but most people do not seem to pay attention. Luckily everybody drives big SUVs, Pick up trucks or similar monstors. So of the four accidents that happend in front of my nose, nobody got hurt. Would in each of these cases one of the parties would have been a japanese cooky can ;-), scooter, bicycle driver or pedestrian...
My American friends get totally freaked out by European traffic. To agressive they say. However there are a lot less accidents there. If it happens though... The only accident I witnessed "in real time" in Europe was 100kmph, 100kmph head-on collision... I will spare you the details.
There are no scooters, and bicyles in the US to speak off. When you are walking on the street in most US cities, the police will stop you to ask if you are in some kind of trouble.
I feel therefore Taiwanese mortality numbers are not too bad considering the mix traffic participants.

PS to Les:
Maybe LA drivers are so law-abiding not due to the efforts of the cops, but due to the odds of getting into a confrontation with an armed and irate driver?

In my TX experience these two, the cops and the armed and irate drivers, are the same. TX cops scare the hell out of me.

Michael Turton said...

I lived in Texas for two years, and have seen FAR more accidents here than there. You need only look at the death rates of 15.33 per 100K, or 25% less than Taiwan's. It's much safer to drive there than here.


Anonymous said...

I'm nearly a decade late commenting here, but after a month in Taiwan, I'd guess that the vast, vast majority of Taiwan's highway deaths are from scooters. For One thing, in Taipei at least, they would appear to make up roughly half of the personal vehicle trips. Also, I have rarely seen cars moving at what appear to be potentially fatal speeds here, but I don't need to elaborate on what a 20mph scooter crash can do.
The most shocking thing I've encountered in all of Taiwan is the Adult-with-a-Helmet-Children-Without scooters, and that's including the electrical outlets in my shower...