Driving in Taiwan

It’s the common understanding that driving in Taiwan is not the thing to do. “Those people drive crazy” is the consensus.

What I found:

Driving customs and characteristics were unique, but not outlandish. Skills were more variable than in most places. But, the variety of roads was higher, so a larger skill range is to be expected. It would not be normal to find drivers at the top of their game on narrow, twisty mountain roads, narrow, cluttered city lanes, and narrow freeways whose flow rate is between 100 and 110 kph.

Streets: Scooters flow around the traffic like little liquid particles. That leads to one characteristic – you’re in a 360 degree world. You gotta keep track of cars and scooters coming from all sides.

Its expected that you drive a scooter on the sidewalk to get to where you want to go exactly. In fact, scooters are parked on the sidewalks.

Lanes along the right side of both city streets and roads are devoted to scooters. The scooter lane is about double the width of a bike lane. Exactly the right width for the tiny vans that are popular here. These scooter lanes lead to one odd thing: passing on the right is the norm. You swing on to the scooter lane and buzz around the car ahead. That people may be parked in the scooter lane and/or walking there is a complication.

Roads are over-marked with double white lines between lanes (when there are two lanes going one direction). The only time I’ve seen such double lines treated as a no-lane-change directive (and the only time I treated them as such) was in a long tunnel on freeway 3 in south central Taiwan.

In the mountains (and generally), drivers are much more aware of the extent and edges of their cars than in the states. No surprise, given how often you gotta squeeze through places. Example of squeezing: coming down from the moutains above Taroko Gorge we stopped for some construction. The guy ahead of us, in a small car, was pulled really close to the ditch. His right side wheels were almost hanging over the 1/2 foot deep ditch (concrete road edge so the ditch side is vertical – ditch is a little less than a foot wide – just wide enough to swallow a tire). Anyway, I noticed that, when the cars and trucks from the other way below started up past us, the guy in the small car flipped his side mirror back against his car. I took the hint and got Ciaran and Liz to spot the right side wheels so we were pretty close to the edge. We were stopped in a 1-lane part of the road.

When the first truck came, he took a half minute or so to get by the car ahead of us. Did a tiny bit of scraping against the guard rail on the other side. Our chunk of the road was a little wider, I hoped. Few more inches to allow for a slightly wider car and for our extra 3 inches on the right.

That truck got around us, thanks to the left side mirror being pushed back against the car.

The next truck – I don’t know how he made it by. Think is was because his widest part was above our widest part. I could almost hear the screeeee of metal sliding against metal.

So, that’s the way it is sometimes.

Freeway: Well, first thing, they are more accurately termed “freeway”. Toll booths charging 40NT at irregular intervals. Attendents even in the “ticket” lanes. Must be hard on the breathing. The little mouth masks that so many people use here couldn’t be that much help.

Freeways are of two types: 2 lane and 3 lane. 2 lane roads are fairly disciplined and smooth. Things get interesting when the the extra lane is added. There is a pretty clear separation between certain classes of drivers:

Group 1: Trucks and buses. Mostly stay in the right lane. Click along at 80 to 100, tops.

Group 2: Easy riders. They pick either of the other two lanes and stick there all the way down the road seemingly oblivious to anything else on the road. (I tested whether anyone knew about light-flicking for “please move over”. Nope.)

Group 3: Type A. They buzz along 20 to 30 kph above the flow rate, swinging between lanes to get around the others.

Group 4: Somewhere ‘tween groups 2 and 3. This group is the vast majority of drivers on US roads, but they did not set the tone here.

The freeway lanes are narrow by US interstate standards and forward vision is limited. So, operating the freeways isn’t easy. Density for us was not bad. Mid-day ‘tween cities stuff. I hung the pointer on 112 generally and didn’t have too much trouble. There were more klutzes than you might expect. But not enough to cause real trouble. I got the sense that the klutz rate was a function of people driving the freeway infrequently.

Signs were adaquate on all roads. Plenty of Pinyin. Maps were not completely accurate.

All in all, driving is not “to be avoided at all costs”. But, you gotta keep aware, be flexible, and not expect to stay tightly in one lane.

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