Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) opinion that a rise in traffic deaths in Taichung and Kaohsiung was due to a change in governments in the two municipalities has stirred controversy.
However, the fundamental reason is that the punishments for those found guilty of offenses that caused a fatal road crash are too light to be a deterrent to careless driving. This has led to an increase in negligent driving and danger on the roads.
If a court rules that a death was caused by negligence, the offender will normally be given a light sentence. After all, insurance companies have set a price on a human life — NT$2 million (US$70,577) — which is the compensation they award in such circumstances.
The offending driver does not have to pay anything, and light sentences are often commuted to a fine, so they rarely face prison.
It is unsurprising that people are not motivated to drive carefully.
There are many Internet discussions about why there are so many traffic accidents in Taiwan. Some people say that Taiwan’s high population density increases the probability of crashes.
There were 1,849 road traffic fatalities in Taiwan in 2019 and 1,852 last year.
Comparing Taiwan with other densely populated nations shows that Singapore ranks first for population density, Taiwan ranks fourth, the Netherlands eighth and Israel ninth.
However, if the populations of these nations are adjusted to match Taiwan’s and the fatalities from the latest available data kept in proportion, Singapore would have 815 deaths per year, the Netherlands 871 and Israel 875.
The adjusted figures show that the rate of crash fatalities in Taiwan is more than double what it is in nations with similar population densities.
If Taiwan’s population and road accident deaths are adjusted for the population of Japan and its 3,532 deaths in 2019, Taiwan would have had only 661 deaths that year. In other words, the risk of being killed in a traffic crash in Taiwan was almost three times what it was in Japan.
Japan’s strict enforcement of compensation and prison terms, which are several times higher than they are in Taiwan, as well as intolerance toward offenders, have probably played a role in a rapid reduction in the number of road accident deaths there, from 5,224 in 2016 to 3,532 in 2019.
Taiwan has invested a lot of resources in traffic law enforcement, but it seems that the results have been limited. The government should seriously examine the root cause of the high incidence of crashes.
Carrots and sticks must be used in a balanced manner. An exaggerated emphasis on humanitarianism leads to strange rulings, such as a not-guilty verdict for a person suspected of killing his mother.
When offending drivers do not have to take any major responsibility for their mistakes, it sends the message that killing people on the roads is no big deal, as insurance companies pay the bereaved families.
Traffic on Taiwan’s roads is in a state of chaos. Perhaps it is time to deploy heavy punishments.
Lin Yeh-yun is a professor of business administration at National Chengchi University.
Translated by Lin Lee-kai
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