A New Emphasis on Road Safety

While the government has sought to improve road safety through infrastructure upgrades, education programs, and stricter penalties for dangerous driving, activists argue for a more pedestrian-centered approach to address the problem effectively.

Traffic in Taiwan has been labeled “hellish,” “a nightmare,” and “like a warzone,” starkly contrasting the usual image of Taiwan as a safe place to reside. Despite government efforts to tackle the problem, the number of traffic accidents and deaths has continued to increase. 

When surveyed in AmCham’s 2023 Business Climate Survey about 16 aspects affecting Taiwan’s attractiveness as a place for foreign professionals to live and work, Chamber members listed road safety as the most negative feature of life here. As road safety in Taiwan has recently gained domestic and international media attention – most notably with a piece from CNN referring to Taiwan as “a pedestrian hell” – discussions about the issue have grown louder and more frequent. 

According to the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC), in the first four months of this year there were 133,972 traffic accidents involving injuries or immediate fatalities, up 8.9% from 2022. In the same period, another 1,039 people died from their injuries within 30 days of being in a traffic accident – an increase of 6.3% over the previous year. In 2019, Taiwan had a 30-day traffic-related death rate of 12.1 per 100,000 people – four times higher than that of Japan. 

Domestic media coverage has also highlighted several high-profile traffic accidents in which pedestrians legally crossing the road have been struck by drivers. Between January and April, the number of accidents involving pedestrians increased by 9.8% compared with last year. The number of accidents involving pedestrians at intersections saw an even more significant increase of 25% in the same period.  

In response, a group of road safety advocates in May formed the civil alliance Vision Zero Taiwan (VZT). The alliance focuses on raising public and government awareness of citizens’ desire for improvement of all three aspects of the “three E’s” of road safety – engineering, education, and enforcement. 

Just a couple of days later, a three-year-old girl and her mother were struck by a car while legally crossing a street in Tainan City. The girl died on the scene, and the mother came away with injuries and irreparable emotional trauma. In response, VZT decided to take to the streets to heighten awareness of citizens’ desire for change, holding well-attended demonstrations on May 14 in Taipei, Tainan, Taichung, and Kaohsiung at intersections known to be dangerous. Encouraged, the alliance has scheduled another rally near the Presidential Office and Taipei Main Station in Taipei on August 20, using the crowdfunding platform Zeczec to help finance the event. 

The Taipei City Department of Transportation (TCDOT) lists its main goal for 2023 as “promoting a people-centered transportation environment by establishing safe pedestrian spaces and accessible environments, improving neighborhood traffic conditions, planning marked pedestrian paths, adjusting parking spaces and no-parking zones, and providing a comprehensive and safe traffic environment in alleys.” 

To achieve this objective, TCDOT has begun surveying pedestrian paths around the city and is considering widening and extending sidewalks in some areas while attempting to clear obstructions from designated pedestrian walkways. The department expects to increase pedestrian-friendly pathways (green-painted strips along the side of the street) on five main traffic thoroughfares in Taipei – Renai, Dunhua, Zhongshan, Minquan, and Roosevelt Roads. Another 34 streets are expected to be upgraded over the next five years. 

The department also plans to review sidewalk configurations to create safer and more comfortable environments for pedestrians and cyclists. Many parts of Taipei currently lack sidewalks or even green walkways.  

As part of government efforts to promote alternative modes of transportation and increase safety for bicyclists, MOTC is working to create more cycling paths in cities. The Executive Yuan intends to spend a total of NT$2.8 billion between 2020 and 2024 to improve “accessibility and user-friendliness” and “bridge gaps to connect local bike paths [for] a safer, more comfortable cycling environment,” according to a statement on its website.  

For its part, TCDOT is increasing the number of rental bicycle stations around the city to make cycling a viable option for more commuters. The plan also involves removing obstacles for pedestrians and cyclists such as scooters illegally parked on sidewalks and the raised, covered walkways connected to the front of many buildings in the city.  

“As most of these illegally parked scooters are a result of a lack of parking in some areas, we are working on increasing the number of parking spaces and looking into the possibility of additional parking lots throughout the city,” TCDOT Commissioner Hsieh Ming-hong told Taiwan Business TOPICS

Rethinking movement 

MOTC is additionally tackling several areas of concern regarding the engineering and design of roadways across Taiwan. “We are currently looking into updating and improving the design of roadways to make them safer for pedestrians and motorists by proactively identifying dangerous roads and working to update their design,” says Huang Yung-kuei, executive secretary of MOTC’s Road Traffic Safety Commission. Another priority is adding designated walkways in areas lacking either traditional sidewalks or painted paths. 

As part of its efforts, the commission is evaluating whether to expand the use of separately timed traffic signals for pedestrians and motorists. In one such system, known as an “exclusive pedestrian interval,” traffic stops in all directions while pedestrians cross the street, including diagonally. TCDOT says there are 231 intersections in Taipei using this approach. At another 600 intersections, pedestrians can start crossing five or ten seconds before the light turns green for motorists. 

“We are also trying to improve safety in areas around schools for students and around hospitals, parks, and markets to make them more accommodating for elderly citizens who frequent those areas,” says Huang.  

In terms of traffic engineering, measures designed to lower driving speeds or physically separate pedestrian and motor traffic have been shown to be among the most effective in reducing the number of accidents. This conclusion was also shared in the European Commission’s 2021 Road Safety Thematic Report on Pedestrians, which suggests that footpaths and pedestrian crossings be physically separated from motor and bicycle traffic. 

But VZT argues that efforts to make spaces more pedestrian-friendly are not enough – the goal should be an environment that is “pedestrian-first.”  “Pedestrian-centered cities or spaces have already gained a lot of traction in Europe and North America, but in Taiwan, road design is highly car-centric,” says Zhang Yixian, a VZT representative. “The engineering of roadways is currently done with cars and scooters in mind. This leads to pedestrians being left as more of an afterthought.”  

Pedestrian-centered cities are especially prominent in Europe. But unlike many cities in Taiwan, pedestrian-oriented cities have the advantage of inherent characteristics such as narrow medieval street layouts. Transforming Taiwan’s cities into pedestrian-centered urban areas would require significant changes in planning and infrastructure that might prove more challenging and costly than designing new developments with walkability in mind from the outset.  

Education and enforcement 

Another point of discontent among critics is Taiwan’s driver education system, which differs from that of many East Asian and Western countries where obtaining a driver’s license is often a more involved process requiring comprehensive coursework.  

“Driver education in Taiwan isn’t as developed as in other countries,” says Zhang. “Before someone gets behind the wheel, they don’t have to complete extensive on-the-road learning and training like you see in the UK or the U.S., and that kind of training is necessary for someone to drive safely.” 

The alliance recommends training that emphasizes internalizing safe-driving skills and implementing practical road training that includes unpredictable examination routes. It also proposes establishing a driver retraining regimen to eliminate unfit drivers and a more comprehensive certification and assessment mechanism for driving instructors. 

While the alliance’s recommendations focus on reforming driver education, many countries have established education programs that start from an even younger age. An example is the UK’s Highway Code, a set of rules for pedestrians that includes general guidance for using and crossing roads and information about situations where extra care is needed. These rules for motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians are introduced starting in the first year of elementary school. 

In a similar effort, the MOTC, together with the Ministry of Education, is now implementing a five-part education program targeted at elementary to high school students. The aim is to instill general knowledge of traffic regulations and situations that pedestrians and motorists should be aware of while fostering a healthy overall attitude toward road safety.  

“If citizens can learn these things at a young age, when they grow up and start driving scooters or cars themselves, they will be more aware of how to interact when encountering pedestrians,” says MOTC’s Huang. 

The MOTC also recently launched a pilot program that will see 2,000 new scooter drivers undertake additional road training after obtaining their driver’s licenses. The results of the program will inform future plans for driver education reform. 

To further incentivize drivers to adopt safe behavior, amendments to the Road Traffic Management and Penalty Act targeting dangerous driving habits went into effect at the beginning of July this year. These changes include increased fines for speeding and other infractions, and stricter enforcement of regulations requiring motorists to yield to pedestrians crossing the street.  

“It’s quite obvious that drivers are following this regulation much more than they ever have,” says Huang. “People are afraid that they’ll have to pay NT$6,000 if they don’t stop for people crossing, so it seems this law is succeeding with its intended purpose.” 

The new regulations also implement a stricter penalty point system for traffic infractions. Drivers accruing 12 or more points within a year will have their license suspended for two months under the strengthened traffic violation points system – up from one month for six points. Traffic violations are given a one-, two-, or three-point value depending on the severity of the infraction, and points are accrued when drivers are found to have committed traffic violations. 

“Though this may seem like a short suspension period, it’s important not to underestimate the effects this can have on individuals,” says TCDOT’s Hsieh. “For many, losing the ability to drive can affect their ability to work or other areas of daily life, which can be an effective deterrent.” 

TCDOT also stresses the importance of civilians’ ability to report violations they have witnessed to law enforcement. Under the amended law, civilians can now report 59 types of offenses, an increase from the previous total of 46. TCDOT says that this change will gradually create a more mature reporting system that civilians can utilize. But although increased enforcement of laws may be a piece of the puzzle, VZT considers that it is often over-valued.  

“We can’t just depend on enforcement alone,” says Zhang. “Enforcement should be the last resort in improving the situation. Improving the design of the roads, making them more friendly toward pedestrians, and educating drivers – that’s what is most important.”