Thursday, June 28, 2007

The 45 Minute Ulcer

What's driving like? Well, nothing static can convey the reality of a Taiwan road. But today I took a shot at it, recording a trip from home to the university. It started out in fine style. As I sat in the middle lane, the car in front of the yellow truck turned right from the center lane, and was followed by the truck, which also turned right, halting traffic in both lanes. It was turning onto a very wide two lane road, so there was no excuse. But -- it's a refrain -- stuff like this is normal here in Taiwan.

Moments later, as I approach a red light, I mark a scooter going the wrong way, in the opposite lane, weaving in between those scooter which, by some accident of history, are actually going the right way. Moments later -- next frame -- he shoots through the red light as though he were immortal. Here in Taichung, a succession of mayors from both major parties has done zilch for our fair city's traffic

Another traffic hazard: since there are no sidewalks in this section, the foot traffic walks in the street. It has to walk out among the vehicles to avoid the market that occupies what should be parking spaces.

Foot traffic walks in the street even where there are sidewalks.

Red lights? The Taiwanese will tell you that red lights are "for reference." Consequently, a constant hazard outside of a few heavily camera'd areas are scooters running red lights.

Here's another hazard -- as vehicles park or move off to the right to turn, scooters shoot out into the road to go around them.

The scooter circled here is actually stopped waiting for the light. Another problem with scooters is that they will often stop far into the intersection, forcing other traffic to move around them. Car drivers are bad, but it is the scooters that make Taiwan roads the miserable crapshoot that they are.

Inside the circle is "the dragon," as a local blogger named it. At heavily trafficked intersections like this one, when the light changes, the left turning cars form a line and block the oncoming traffic as they turn left, each car leaving the left turn lane successively earlier. The result is a long chain of vehicles like a Chinese dragon.

In addition to the chain of left turning vehicles, a hazard at every intersection of even middling size is that vehicles use the scooter and parking lanes as an unofficial second lane, meaning that when the light changes, two lanes worth of vehicles race to cram themselves into one lane. We'll see that several times in our morning trip.

Still not out of the intersection, but more traffic threats follow. The last of the left turning cars just clears the oncoming traffic, when a heavily-laden truck makes an illegal right on red and attempts to shove its way into traffic.

It is hard to see, but this intersection has only one lane. Typically, because of the wide shoulder, three lanes form -- one right turn lane and two lanes going straight, which attempt to cram themselves into one lane in a free for all.

As I contemplate the mess in front, the truck that just made the illegal right turn passes me and the car in front of me at high speed and darts into the line of traffic. Just ahead two lanes of cars are shoehorning themselves into one lane. People who pass the traffic illegally on the right and then cut in are usually let in. Not only is it polite to permit others to impose on onself in local culture, the kind of driver that speeds past everyone on the road and then cuts in dangerously is generally the kind of person who has little compunction about kicking the shit out of anyone who kicks up a fuss.

Note the two cars driving illegally in the motorcycle lane, pushing the poor biker to speed up. Passing on the right is a serious problem here, resulting in many deaths. Taiwan's traffic death rate is three times that of Los Angeles.

This intersection is always a hotbed of fun driving. As I come to stop in front of the red light, a scooter shoots out ahead of me hoping to cross the intersection before the cars come out as the light changes. Usually they make it.

These little electric vehicles are actually illegal now. Not that anyone ever gets stopped or anything.

But we're not finished here as this truck driver runs the red. There is nothing unusual about today, just another typical traffic day.

Still not done -- as the light turn greens, a scooter driver shoots the intersection, hoping to get across before the cars get out into the intersection. Usually they make it.

Left turns. As the light turns green, the scooter drivers make the quick left, forcing traffic in the opposite direction to halt as they thread their way through the scooters emerging into the road. Usually they make it.

Here's another fun issue, if you're in the opposite lane: scooter drivers who can't be bothered to wait for the light or to slip beside the vehicles prefer to drive down the opposite lane to pass the line of cars waiting for the red light. If you make a right turn in here you've got a good change of nailing this idiot. He was followed by two others.

As the light changes, crossing traffic at this major road junction still hasn't cleared the intersection. Everyone who drives this road regularly knows what the traffic is like here, so cars are not surging into the street, because....

Yes! A large truck completely disregards the red lights and the traffic in the intersection and crosses the street against a red before the crossing traffic can claim the intersection. In the morning there are sometimes four policemen directing morning traffic here.

Here construction has eliminated one lane, so two lanes combine into one. The result? Chaos.

Another common hazard: people selling things by accosting drivers. Flower sellers, real estate advertisers, Mormons....just about everybody selling something can be found selling it in the road.

Another hazard: why build a parking lot when you can just use the street? Here a parked truck blocks part of the road, and everyone must go around.

In the finest local style, this scooter driver shoots out from a side street against the light, and proceeds to thread his way between the two left turning vehicles.

But we're not done, as yet another scooter runs the red light. This woman waited until we had begun to move out into traffic before she decided to cross the street. When you consider that Taichung doesn't even have the island's worst traffic -- opinion appears to be divided between Tainan and Kaohsiung on that score -- it is a wonder that everyone in Taiwan doesn't suffer from intestinal disorders.

College students are notoriously poor scooter drivers. Here two students turn onto the university road by making illegal left turns on red. Usually they make it. T-intersections are particularly bad for scooter infractions

My favorite: as I make the left, one -- no two -- no, make that three scooters pass me on the left as I am turning left. Safety? It is not my fate to die in an accident on the road.....


Anonymous said...

Jet packs, Michael. They're the way of the future.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Taiwanese people are living in a state of collective denial about traffic problems.

I think the recent bus accident on Yangmingshan provides a good example. The media were so quick to assume that the reason for the accident was mechanical problems. Well, first the media should wait for the police to finish their investigation. But it was never really considered that maybe the bus driver was going too fast or driving in an unsafe manner.

Chaon said...

Where I come from in the U.S., the traffic lights go like this: red, left turn, green, sneak any left turns you can at the end of the green, and then red. Here, all I’ve seen is red, green, double dragon, left turn, red.

So while I admit to having no knowledge of traffic planning, it still seems to me that it is better to get as many of your left turners out of the way first, and then go to green. Is it done this way anywhere in Taiwan?

Anonymous said...

All those pictures and not a single one featuring a child not wearing a helmet? I'm stunned!

Anonymous said...

Driving one-handed while taking pictures with your other hand? Tut-tut!

I do that all the time, actually! I am still trying to get a shot of a driver who doesn't wnat to wait in the left turn lane and drives up to the front completely blocking the lane for drivers who want to go straight.

Back to cameras in cars, in the not-too-distant future most vehicles with be fitted with cameras front and back. It will be interesting to see how having cameras in cars influences driver behaviour and also driving insurance rates.

Anonymous said...

I read that Taipei County has suggested pedestrians to walk against the traffic, for exactly the reasons you pointed out. Since the no sidewalk problem won't be fixed anytime soon, it's good to see the pic of the lady walking against the traffic.
That way no one can steal your purse, camera, or umbrella from behind either!


Anonymous said...

Good article, Michael. But here's some food for thought.
What about those crazy people who take photographs while they're driving?
Now that is really dangerous.

Michael Turton said...

Man, you people have NO FAITH in me. :} I didn't take pictures while driving. I just put a video camera on the dash, and then captured some stills from it.


. said...

And I think it's bad in Taipei! A great post indeed.
One thing that surprises me is that amongst the anarchy it's only the foreigners that seem to get serious road rage.
Does anyone offer sustained pressure for getting the police to actually start doing their job? Perhaps a group of people who have lost loved ones? An uppity mayor? Anyone?!!
Something else that literally gets right up my nose is the smokey scooter/bike problem. These selfish oafs contribute magnitudes more pollution than everyone else. Where's a petition to sign? A pressure group to join? Apart from shouting Chinese obscenities at them (not massively effective) What can be done?

Anonymous said...

"One thing that surprises me is that amongst the anarchy it's only the foreigners that seem to get serious road rage."

In anarchy, there is order. If everyone drives in the same manner, then everyone knows what to expect from their fellow motorists. It's only the outsiders who would naively assume rules will be obeyed and courtesies shown. Hence, the road rage when these things don't occur.

Actually, I have seen Taiwanese drivers lose self-control at times. I remember seeing one middle-aged female scooter rider spit in the face of another middle-aged female scooter rider because the latter cut off the former by going through a red light at a busy intersection.

Michael Turton said...

I've seen lots and lots of road rage here. It's pretty common -- face, you know. Just last week I saw a bus cut off a motorcyclist and the guy drove around to the front of the bus, stopped, got out, and yelled at the driver for about thirty seconds. Lots of that sort of thing.


Fotozon said...

Great post on Taiwan Traffic Michael. I was going to comment about the crazy forig It does seem to have tamed down a little bit over the last ten years though, at least people are "pretending" to follow the rules now... "it's illegal to turn right on a red, but it's ok to drive on the wrong side of the road..!".

Real Estate said...

Hey Michael,

Good job on this post. must have been labor intensive.

Thanks for using the term "the dragon". I have been doing my best to coin the phrase as it really suits that type of traffic infraction.

I live in Tainan and I think I could spend an less than an hour at any intersection and get some good traffic infraction shots. I'll post it if I do and then let you know. It's been something I have wanted to do for a while.



skiingkow said...

I have always wondered if Taiwanese driving was a sort of "controlled chaos". That is, everyone breaks the rules, but there is a "unwritten" rule to follow with respect to breaking the rules. Does that make any sense?

Anyhow, I always wanted to see some stats to verify that hypothesis. It seem -- as Michael has pointed out in this post -- that it is decidedly NOT a "controlled" chaos, indeed. Do you have any links to these stats, Michael?

It would be interesting to do a similar post from the "pedestrian" perspective. In some ways, I think these people are more at risk than the people in vehicles -- considering that sidewalks in Taiwan are road arteries for scooters trying to get onto the street.

cfimages said...

I was down in Tainan this weekend, and they've got to be the worst drivers. In a taxi going from Jhongshan Rd out to Anping, the taxi driver was driving the same as all taxi drivers do (for those readers not in TW, that means doing whatever he wanted, legal or not, safe or not), but he was probably the best driver on the roads. The others, mainly scooters, cars and SUVs were shockingly bad.

Maktaaq said...

"...It is a wonder that everyone in Taiwan doesn't suffer from intestinal disorders."

When I lived in Taiwan, I was told that Taiwanese women have the worst bowel issues in all of East Asia. Seriously!

Anonymous said...

Great post on the traffic hazards in Taiwan... wait... not hazards - this is regular traffic here.

My wife (who is Taiwanese) has come to the conclusion that crappy driving is just an outward manifestation of people's selfishness. People who do this (many people here, but not all) are just selfish b@st@rd$ who think they deserve right-of-way.

The left-turning dragon describes exactly what's going on! Hahaha... Or it's like you're pulling a straight length of rope perpendicularly...

In regards to road rage... I used to get a lot of it when I first got here, but now I've accepted that getting angry only punishes me AND there's nothing that I can do about it. So, I've just adapted the "techniques" that suit my needs; such as gunning it to turn left when the light turns green, and snaking amongst traffic on the scooter.

I think that part of the reason Taiwanese don't go road-rage crazy is that not only is it futile (the so-called "controlled" chaos) - but people here are really scared of low-lifes (liu mang), people with power (guan xi), young punks (nian qing ren), and taxi drivers. Why get your butt kicked over routine traffic happenings, eh?

And it's too bad you weren't on a mini-bus on a vacation with your camcorder, Michael, otherwise you could've recorded several other phenomena:

1. Driving really fast and then when another vehicle gets in the way, instead of braking really hard and jolting your passengers, quickly divert the car to some empty lane or other available space.

2. Overtaking gravel trucks on blind corners on mountainous roads on rainy days with bald tires.

Scooters really do add the most chaos to Taiwanese roads, however, because any "Zhang San, Li Si" can get one and they follow the rules even less than taxis!

Taipei City is a little better than all other places in Taiwan, however, because all rules are strictly enforced. Park on a red line and your car will be towed in minutes! No scooters parking on sidewalks. I've even seen jay-walkers yelled at by traffic cops! There are cops hiding everywhere waiting to give out tickets. And there are many traffic cameras that work! It's great!

I'm glad I'm heading back to Canada next year in any case, however!