In fight to improve road safety, education to get higher priority

Traffic fatalities in Taiwan have fallen steadily since peaking in 2006, but both transportation officials and experts feel more progress needs to be made on the issue and are planning a shift in emphasis to achieve the goal.

Law enforcement has been the top priority in recent years in cracking down on problems such as drunk driving, but Taiwan's government now wants to stress education, including of children long before they reach driving age, to further limit the number of road fatalities in the future.

"The high death toll is like having a 921 earthquake every year," said Hsieh Ming-hong (???), executive secretary of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications' (MOTC) Road Traffic Safety Commission, referring to the 1999 earthquake in central Taiwan that claimed more than 2,000 lives.

A total of 2,877 people (including drivers and passengers as well as pedestrians and bicycle riders) died from road accidents in Taiwan in 2016, down from 4,411 in 2006, 3,459 in 2008, and 3,268 in 2012, according to MOTC figures.

Yet Taiwan's 12.2 road fatalities per 100,000 people in 2016 still remained higher than in most developed countries around the world.

To address the issue, Transportation Minister Ho Chen Tan (???) vowed at the beginning of 2017 that road safety would be a top priority for the year, and he set a goal of reducing traffic fatalities by 15 percent by the end of 2019.

Some road safety strategies have already been undertaken in pursuit of the goal. Driver's tests on real roads rather than on contrived courses at driving centers were introduced in May 2017, and high-tech tools started to track vehicles and support law enforcement.

To significantly change the current situation, however, transportation officials and experts argue that an education-oriented policy framework is the key, with children the primary target of the new emphasis.

"Kids can develop a complete pattern of traffic behavior by learning from their parents by the age of six," said Chang Hsin-li (???), a professor of transportation and logistics management at National Chiao Tung University.

It is therefore essential for the MOTC and the Ministry of Education to work together to include traffic safety courses in elementary school curriculums, Chang argued.

Parents need to be re-educated, too, he said, because one of the biggest problems in early-age road safety education is that "parents prefer to protect their children rather than teach them how to protect themselves."

The seriousness of the problem was highlighted in November 2017 when a fourth-grade boy was run over by a cargo truck in Taoyuan while crossing the street.

It prompted calls for measures to improve safety by the Jing Chuan Child Safety Foundation, which cited figures showing that 9,883 children under the age of 14 were injured and 16 killed in 8,965 accidents in 2016, with 804 of the accidents coming on road-crossings.

Hsieh said the ministry will follow a policy adopted in countries such as South Korea and Singapore, which is to work with local governments to establish "traffic safety parks" so children can have hands-on experience in developing good road safety habits.

"To start with, children must have a basic idea of how many seconds they need to cross an intersection and when they must stop trying because they know there won't be enough time left for them to rush," Hsieh said.

Road safety education should also be incorporated in driver's license requirements, suggested Chung Hui-yu (???), vice director of the Innovation Center for Intelligent Transportation and Logistics at Feng Chia University.

That would make sense, considering that the main causes of fatal accidents in Taiwan in 2016 -- "failing to pay attention," "failing to yield as required," and "failing to follow traffic signs or signals" -- reflected a general lack of awareness and driving ethics.

Chung, a former commissioner of Taipei's Department of Transportation, said stepping up requirements is especially important for motorbike riders, a group that accounts for the majority of fatalities but receives insufficient attention.

She said getting a driver's license for a motorbike in Taiwan is too easy, and the lack of knowledge about real road conditions -- especially when motorbikes often share the same lane with other vehicles, increasing risk -- can cost many young people their lives.

Of the 2,229 vehicle drivers or passengers killed in road accidents in 2016, 1,804, or 81 percent, were on motorbikes, according to figures compiled by the Institute of Transportation (IOT) under the MOTC.

Hsieh said the ministry is creating case studies, which will become learning materials for those applying for a license to drive a motorbike.

In the long run, the ministry is thinking about creating traffic simulators using virtual reality technology to prepare riders for real life road conditions, he said.

The simulators will first be introduced to motor vehicle offices across Taiwan for people to try and eventually be incorporated into test for motorbike licenses, he said.

Even those who already have a driver's license, regardless of the kind of vehicles, should get extended road safety education in combination with tighter law enforcement, Chung said.

In Taiwan, motorists have their traffic violation points reset to zero every six months, which Chung considers too short because it is difficult to track road behavior and get people the corrective education they need.

She suggested Taiwan should follow countries like the United Kingdom and Japan, where violation points are accumulated for three years, and Hsieh agreed, but said no consensus has been reached on the issue yet.

The other group is a need for special education for senior citizens, the mostly likely group by age to be killed in a traffic accident.

According to the IOT, traffic fatalities were the highest in 2016 for those older than 74 years of age, with a death rate of 45.472 deaths per 100,000 people, of which half came as pedestrians.

It was much higher than the next highest-risk age group, people aged 16-20, who had a fatality rate of 13.474 deaths per 100,000 people.

Hsieh admitted that traffic safety programs tailored to senior citizens have not been effective enough even though the ministry has been sending volunteers to educate the elderly around the country, particularly in suburban areas.

"We will put more emphasis on sending a simpler and more powerful message to them, which is 'to be seen,'" Hsieh said, suggesting for example that senior citizens should be encouraged to wear brighter colors when out on the streets.

How these initiatives play out in the coming months will determine if road fatalities continue to decline or if they remain stubbornly high.

Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel