Now, with a title like that, this ought to be a short missive on Hugh Grant – okay, that was a very long time ago, so you kids had better just look it up – but it’s a term that struck me one afternoon as I was sat in the car at one of the countless intersections in Kaohsiung. You see, red light creep is a condition or a disease, rather than an odious individual looking for a good time. More specifically, it is a condition seen across Taiwan if the circumstances are right; namely, a set of traffic lights and a road user. In my (admittedly limited) experience of the island, the disease is fairly well established in every corner, wherever road meets road and driver meets traffic lights. While the term itself has been gnawing away in my mind for a few months, only today did it occur to me that it could be a useful catch-all term for the bizarre, confusing, frustrating and crazy monster that exists under the name of road use in this glorious island.
Any regular readers will perhaps recall that in earlier posts I have been particularly concerned with cycle safety on the roads of Great Britain. Since I moved to Taiwan, my attention has been on other things, but I’ve been storing up ideas and now seems as good a time as any to unleash them on the world. Hopefully, the world to which I refer will include Taiwan (not Chinese Taipei – are you listening, WHO, UN, IOC and other world bodies*?) as this is for you.
I fully expect that some of you may be thinking “look at him, coming over here an telling us how to use our roads!”, and I realise that I may be being rather presumptuous for daring to offer some advice, but I do know a thing or two about road safety. I have been trained by the police in the UK and I passed my Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) test some 22 years ago, so I have some expertise on the matter and, ultimately, bad driving is bad driving, whatever the geographical location.
If you’ve got this far, I guess I should explain how the title is so pertinent. Essentially, there is an unwritten rule of Taiwanese road use which says “Thou shalt not wait!”, with the qualifying clause “especially at a red light for any longer than is absolutely necessary, and even then, don’t worry if you think you can get away with it.” There is a fundamental issue of road use which is epitomised at the traffic light junctions the length and breadth of the island; drivers simply cannot wait for the light to go green. Similarly, they cannot wait for other to pass, cross, park, turn, or any other legitimate activity on the road. Read on, and I’ll explain.
Hang on. Before I go any further, take a look at this.
I think it’s in China, rather than Taiwan, but it’s kind of relevant to the text. It’s pretty funny too, if a bit of schadenfreude doesn’t bother you.
I should make it clear that the road/driving system seems to work, and there is evidently some method in the madness, but the madness is there all the same. I have done countless hours on a scooter: scary. I have done hundreds of miles in the car: scary, but at least I have a steel cage around me. I have done many hours on my bikes: scariest. I have yet to witness an accident, but have been on the scene soon after on several occasions – mostly scooter related incidents. I should also make it clear that I have an old laptop that seems to work. It’s rather old and slow; it’s from another era; my new one is more efficient, nicer to use and makes use of the latest technology and thinking. Changing a laptop is easy – changing a nation’s attitude to road use is all but impossible, but here are some observations and suggestions from this weary old ex-pat.
This is going to be text-heavy, so here’s a short clip to set the tone. No schadenfreude here and it’s definitely not for the faint hearted:
This looks like a clear case of the driving simply jumping the red light, but it also highlights the fact that so many scooter riders and drivers seem to focus only on what is immediately ahead. Bearing in mind that red light jumping is also endemic, one would be foolhardy to cross any junction at speed, especially if you are faced with a clear road ahead.
If you doubt that there is a widespread problem, try this compilation:
Notice how they are pretty much all self-inflicted and/or avoidable with a little awareness or forethought on the part of those involved.
Here are a few examples of what could be improved, not just for me, but for the benefit of everyone, not least through a reduction in the widespread air pollution in urban areas.
The Red Light Creep
May I suggest politely that creepers just wait a few seconds until the light changes to green. Gradual creep and the almost inevitable subsequent minor braking (because there will almost certainly be someone jumping the red light across your bows) will increase the fuel burnt and the wear on both brakes and transmission. Try waiting – it will certainly save you money and may save your life. To be fair, the highways authorities could help with this one. At nearly all junctions it is possible to see the lights on the opposing side changing, so the stop signal also acts as a tacit go signal for those waiting for green. Furthermore, many junctions have a countdown to green, so you know that you will have to wait 90, 60, 45 seconds, or whatever. The problem is that at many junctions, the lights stay red for 90, 60, 45 seconds, or whatever, irrespective of whether there is any traffic. i.e. most lights, as far as I have been able to tell, are not traffic sensitive at all. Now this is a country full of high-tech gadgets and gizmos and the manufacturers thereof; surely it is not beyond the wit of a crack team of electronics nerds and geeks to come up with a system to address this. We have it in the UK and we’re a pretty low-tech society, by comparison. Imagine the fuel that would be saved and the pollution reduction if just a small percentage of the 22.5 million cars and scooters, not to mention commercial vehicles, were not sat needlessly at red lights for several minutes each journey.
The Right Turners.
For the love of God, why can’t people wait for the person in front to pass across the junction, rather than speeding past, slamming on the brakes and cutting across in front, thus causing the other party to have to brake sharply as well? I’d estimate that for the sake of delaying a manoeuvre by five seconds (on average), errant drivers could save themselves fuel and brake wear, and save the innocent party fuel, brake wear and excessive anxiety, while simultaneously reducing the risk of collision should the move be mis-timed. The same thing happens for left turns, only this time you can see the offender cutting across you path. The rules, such as they are, seem to go something like this: 1) If you think it unavoidable that the oncoming vehicle will hit you, hang on. 2) If you think the oncoming vehicle has enough room to brake sharply enough to avoid you, bugger it, turn across in front of it. To be fair, you get used to it and heightened anticipation is an essential element of any journey. It’s still intensely frustrating, however, and I can best illustrate this with a little more first-hand experience. Some months ago, while out on my bike, I was descending on a wide but wet road. Visibility was fine. Traffic was minimal. I spotted a vehicle looking to turn across in front of me, also descending. I saw the driver looking at me; he paused momentarily and I thought I was safe. Oh, what a fool I was! He decided to wait no longer – I was now some 40 yards closer. I dared not brake, so I accelerated past and screamed at him through his open window. He’d saved himself the obligatory 5 seconds or so. My shorts were close to taking a hammering from my arsehole.
It should be noted that it also works the other way. Namely, I can be signalling right for several seconds and gradually easing towards a turn and some clown, or several clowns (technically a pratfall of clowns, if Goooooogle and Wikipedianyoldnonsense are to be believed) on scooters will still want to try and pass on the inside. All for the sake of saving a few seconds. Just remember, you’ll have plenty of spare seconds when you are in you grave or on your life support system.
As a footnote to this section, I can’t resist the urge to clarify: I’m a Turner and I am usually right. ;0)
The I Don’t Give a Damn about Anyone Else Syndrome
I could probably cite dozens of examples of this, but a suitable incident occurred the other night. I was outside a 7 Eleven taking a quick break from my bike ride, guzzling on a bottle of Pocari Sweat (honest) and trying to refill my lungs with relatively fresh air. Parked immediately outside the store was a scooter, behind which I stood taking said breather. Sure enough, the scooter pilot jumped on and immediately fired up the engine, despite the fact that: a) he couldn’t possibly drive away from where he was, what with scooters having no reverse gear and all that, and: b) there was I, a 51 year-old, 6’4″ Lycra-clad stick-insect, dripping with sweat. A few litres of carbon monoxide fired straight up my nose was just what I needed. Could he have waited about 5 seconds and hit the ignition after pushing the scooter back to the road? Could he bollocks. Yes, it’s a petty example, but perlease, oh loverly people of Taiwan… how about a little thought for those around you? Again, there are cost and pollution implications – indeed, it seems to be common practice to reverse out of spaces with the motor running, irrespective of the presence of sweaty cyclists or other hapless passers-by. It makes no sense.
Crossing the Road
Back to the ubiquitous traffic light for a moment. There are usually little animated green or red men to indicate that pedestrians should cross, or otherwise refrain from doing so. The little green fella starts to speed up as the time to cross nears an end. Take a look:
The problem is that a green man is not any form of assurance that it is safe to cross, since traffic turning left or right into the road takes its cue from the green light. While technically, pedestrians do seem to have priority, this does not mean traffic will wait and allow sufficient room – cars, lorries, trucks, vans, buses and scooters will routinely cut across in front or behind with inches to spare. I have frequently slapped the sides of vehicles whilst uttering some Anglo-Saxon curse to fall on deaf ears. The situation is especially upsetting when I am crossing with my 2 year old son. In a society which apparently reveres children, allowing safe passage to the same is not a given. Once again, a pause of a handful of seconds would see pedestrians safely out of harms way.
Whatever you do, never ever make eye contact. It seems that this implies liability in the event of a mishap. “It can’t have been my fault, officer, because I didn’t see (read: look at) him.” In truth, this is often an impossibility in any case, as a huge percentage of cars have mirrored or blacked-out windows. Frankly, you never get to see who it is who’s trying to kill or maim you.
The Speed Differential
The roads here are packed with scooters, and I often wonder what the scooter has done for this economy as they have a myriad of uses. I suspect that in terms of accidents per miles driven they are actually relatively safe. Indeed I hope this is so because it is not unusual to see kids riding pillion, riding in the foot-well, riding wedged between mum and dad. A whole family can get around on a scooter: mum, dad, two kids and a dog is quite normal.
Imagine this in the UK – the Daily Mail would implode with righteous indignation and the parents would be locked up just as soon as the kids had been carted off to Barnardos and the dog to the local pound. However, the major risk for the majority of scooterists of Taiwan, as far as I can see (if you remove the very real risk of lung disease from the filthy air) is the minority of clowns who insist on blasting along at about twice the average of all other road users. I have had countless episodes of near misses on both two and four wheels where a scooter has appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and fractions of a second either way could have proven catastrophic if I’d turned or adjusted my own line into its path. Mirrors get a lot of use on my journeys and the good old ‘life-saver’ check (thanks, motorcycle training men of Crawley!) has become second nature.
Out Here, we Drive on the Right, Right?
Wrong! Bear in mind that if you are not familiar with driving in Taiwan, we mostly drive on the, right, but if the place we want to get to happens to be just down the road, we’ll drive on the left. Thus, a scooter or bicycle could be heading your way – i.e. against the flow of the traffic – at any time on any road, at any junction. You have been warned. Yes, you’ve guessed it; there is no point using the right side of the road if you can save yourself a few seconds by risking your safety (and that of a few dozen others). Add in the family-on-a-bike scenario and here’s a recipe for disaster. Sooner or later.
Who’d Have Thought that a Red Light Means Stop?
A simple tip, folks. There is no point in accelerating at a red light, especially if you can see that there are still 90, 60, 45 seconds or whatever remaining until that friendly green light shows its pretty little face. Red means you are supposed to stop, so just relax the throttle and slow down naturally, using the brake if necessary if the light hasn’t changed to green by the time you get there. I’m constantly being passed by vehicles as I am slowing for a light. Similarly, if there’s a narrowing gap ahead – perhaps I should refer to this as a pinch point or bottleneck – there is no point in accelerating towards it. Why not simply back off the throttle and allow those in front to filter through first? If you charge into a narrowing gap, it creates the situation where everyone has to brake and (probably) stop; if you ease off and allow space for those ahead to negotiate the space…well, you work it out.
I guess I’ll add to this as new and/or forgotten issues arise, but I’ll leave it there for now. The eternal pessimist in me knows that nothing will change, but if only one person changes one aspect of their driving behaviour, it will have been worth it.
Slightly off topic, but in case you missed it in the news a few days ago, here’s one lucky, lucky bastard**:
** Thanks to Monty Python:
*Disclaimer. I admit that, owing to the early onset of a severe bout of bone idleness, I have not researched this, so I apologise if I have misrepresented any of these venerable institutions. Then again, the fact that Taiwan is still ‘not recognised’ by any individual, government or organisation is disgraceful in this day and age.