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Question of the Week

I've lived in New Jersey, Florida, and (briefly) California, and seen drivers all over this country. I've traveled to Europe (though not Rome), and seen many Europeans drive. I spent 2 years in Asia, and I'm convinced that Taiwan's drivers are the worst. Here are some examples:

1. In Taiwan, traffic signals are just a rough guideline for navigating an intersection. I've seen cab drivers cruise through red lights going 80. If nobody's coming, drivers of motorcycles routinely run red lights. Stop signs use the Chinese word for 'stop', which also means 'park' (as in 'park the car'). Why would they want to do that?

2. Painted lane stripes are often treated as so much decoration, with no significance as far as guiding traffic goes. On a 4-lane divided highway, it's not unusual to see 6-8 cars lined up at a red light (during rush hour, they usually stop, at least for a while). The taxis especially will pull around other cars or slide between two vehicles stopped at a light -- they'll even pull up on the sidewalk to get up to the front. (If you've ever been to a Chinese train station, the concept is much the same: there are no lines, everyone just jostles their way to the front.)

3. Many Taiwanese grew up without owning a car. Until fairly recently, owning a car was a luxury. As a result, people are extraordinarily knowledgeable about the vast and serviceable bus system, but they don't know how to get anywhere. This leads people to drive around, sometimes the wrong way on one way streets, apparently aimlessly but in the hopes of chancing upon their destination. A related complaint is that the Taiwanese are among the worst in the world for giving directions.

A friend of mine discovered an astonishing and deeply satisfying explanation for the poor quality of driving in Taiwan. What's puzzling is that in some respects, Chinese society is incredibly organized: their systems of education and government, though bureaucratic in the extreme, are quite well ordered. So why not traffic?

The explanation may be: Confucius never wrote a word about traffic. The general theory is that everything Confucius discussed remains well-organized in Chinese society, but everything else is chaos. As a first approximation, it's pretty good!

Good question.




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