As I was breezing through my Facebook updates a few weeks ago, I happened upon a youtube link, 100 Motorcycle Crashes – Driving in Asia.
The link was posted by a friend of mine who was having second thoughts about buying his wife a new scooter. Fair enough. Driving a scooter in Taiwan, as convenient as it may be, is not necessarily the safest mode of transportation. Not that driving a scooter or motorcycle anywhere in the world is safe; however, the inherent risk is increased exponentially when driving on the streets of Taiwan.
The reason for this is not that Taiwanese people are bad drivers; it’s just that many of them don’t know how to drive. And why don’t they know how to drive? Well, to begin with the driver examination that the Ministry of Transportation has set up is ridiculous. Drivers aren’t even tested on the roads. Rather, they are first given a multiple choice exam consisting of 40 relevant and irrelevant questions. (Explain to me again why I need to know the penalty that an unregistered taxi driver faces. And really, does knowing the environmental benefit of hybrid cars really help prevent traffic mishaps?) Upon passing this, examinees are given a driving test. If that’s what you want to call it.
Hopefuls are required to navigate their vehicles, scooters or automobiles, through a maze that is set up similar to the Operation game of my youth. The courses are bordered with sensors which beep when touched. One beep and you fail.
For scooter drivers the difficult part is driving straight along a narrow, four meter strip. Easy enough you say. No. Not really. If you drive these four meters in less than seven seconds, you fail. If you slow down and cross over the sensors on either side, you fail. However, if you drive quickly through the first half, slow down, start to weave, stick your leg out for balance, continue to wobble, almost kick the instructor in the face with your outstretched leg and finish in eight seconds, you pass. ‘How dangerous!’ were the words used by the examiner to describe my driving technique. He then presented me with my license.
For car drivers, I am told that the course is easy enough except for the fact that you must navigate an ‘S’ curve in reverse and parallel park into a small square perfectly in one single motion. Apparently, the only way to pass the test is to take driving lessons on the course first. During these lessons an instructor will tell you exactly when and how far to turn the wheel in order to perform the tasks. In essence the only way to pass the test is to pay for a governmentally endorsed cheat sheet. And this is just what I plan to do.
Pass these tests and you are given a license. No practical experience necessary. So most drivers out there have acquired their permit without ever crossing through an actual intersection. Nice. What’s even better is the fact people who have failed the exam are allowed to drive their vehicles home. Very nice. Sigh.
The fact that most drivers have never had any actual road training is then exacerbated by the unfortunate truth that people aren’t expected to actually follow the rules. Police set up small ‘sting’ operations to catch drivers turning right on a red, or committing other turning violations (Scooter drivers aren’t allowed to turn left at many intersections.). Other than that, they let most traffic violators go. No effort is made to enforce traffic laws unless a police stop has been set up and these seem to be more for filling monthly quotas than anything else. Are you ready to hit the Taiwanese roads yet?
Despite the apparent danger that faces drivers every time they turn the key in their ignition, it is possible to mitigate the chances of being in an accident. You must just take the time to understand the chaos which surrounds you. To me, driving in Taiwan is similar to participating in an interactive ballet. I don’t really understand the meaning of what is happening around me, but I have come to recognize the cadence and can see moves coming before they happen. This helps keep me off of the pavement.
Look Forward ‘cause Nobody’s Looking Back
Taiwanese drivers don’t normally use their mirrors except when reversing. They concern themselves only with vehicles, pedestrians and obstacles visible through the front windshield. Anything behind them doesn’t exist. Well, not until they turn unexpectedly and take out the vehicle beside them.
The Football Fake
Similar to a football deke, step left and quickly lurch right, this is a move that catches many novices off guard. When you see the car in front of you slowly banking right you can be sure that they are setting themselves up for a left hand turn. (The opposite is also true.) I can only assume that a nice wide curve helps to avoid hitting the buildings and posts which line the narrow lanes and alleys of Taiwan.
Lost in Limbo
Taiwanese drivers tend to move quickly. With so many vehicles populating the roads there is never time for Sunday driving. Ever. So when you find yourself behind a slow moving car, you can be sure that the driver is lost, looking for an address or searching for parking. You can also be sure that when they find what they are looking for, they will react suddenly and without looking. Remember, if you are behind them, you don’t exist. Your best move here is to honk and drive on by.
Ashes to Ashes
An open window in a car or one hand on the handle of a scooter is usually a sign that the driver (or occupant) is enjoying a smoke. Beware of ashes and butts that will likely be hurled out the window or flicked to the side. Drive with your visor down!
Beat The Red
A yellow light for many Taiwanese drivers is like a flapping red cape to a bull. Drivers see it and charge. The worst thing you can ever do is to hit the gas as soon as the light turns green. Take a few seconds. Listen for horns and watch for flashing lights because at least once a day you will meet a driver who wants to play ‘beat the red’.
Find The Blocker
When making a left turn, legal or illegal, it is wise to have a car or truck on your outside. There is nothing better than a heavy blocker to keep you from playing ‘kiss the fender’.
To say that I have come to understand Taiwan’s unwritten traffic rules doesn’t mean that I haven’t had my fair share of mishaps. My driving lessons were learned through experience. Painful and often costly experience. I laid my bike down once a month for the first nine I was living here. I have found myself in a ditch, half under a car, laying on a sea of small pebbles and laid out on the front steps of a police station (No one even came out to see if I was ok.). I have hit someone driving the wrong way down a one way street, been run into while I was stopped at an intersection, and been clipped by a car door being opened. I have ‘laid down’ on purpose to avoid hitting a wall (I was a passenger at the time.) and seen my parents lay down after crashing into one. I have seen accidents from which people have miraculously walked away and those which have surely resulted in death. I have comforted friends through broken bones and painful abrasions and been comforted through my own. As I said, everything I know about Taiwan traffic has been learned through experience.
Bat out of Hell, by Meat Loaf, was written to be the ‘ultimate motorcycle crash song’. It was also my favorite piece of vinyl in my dad’s collection. It was one of the few albums that he would actually blast. This was especially true when he played the cassette in his car. I remember watching him as he got lost in the heavy beat and wondering just how ‘badass’ he used to be. I know through stories that I get my fearless stupidity from him and I used to wonder what kind of trouble we might have gotten into had we been kids together. Now I am just grateful that we never were.
Bat out of Hell youtube link