So there I am on my bike, about to cross Highway 1 on my way to Jiadong. It's about 7:30 in the morning, the sun is shining, and traffic is characteristically light for that time of day.
I'm waiting for the light to turn green. It does so. I begin crossing the intersection, knowing that I'm well within the forwardmost driver's field of view. And then?
Another car, second in line, cuts right in front of me as I'm halfway across the road. The driver of that car is going so fast that all I see is a blur in the corner of my left eye. I pump my brakes, almost falling down as I do so. I then get a brief glimpse of an old man behind the wheel of a rusting Toyota, looking away from me. He hasn't even seen me, despite the fact that he was inches away from sending me to the hospital.
This, sadly, is not an isolated occurrence. I've had a few other close calls in Pingtung. The drivers involved are always elderly, and always looking in a direction opposite the one they should have been looking. And what can I do in such situations? I can only ever look to my right and to my left. I can only hope that people driving cars can see me.
I'm reminded of a guy I saw at the Family Mart just south of the Pingnan Industrial Area. I had just gotten off work, and was sitting on one of the outside chairs drinking a cold coffee. I looked to my right and saw a grey-haired, hunched-over man trying to start an old scooter. He'd walk over to the scooter and turn the key - "rrr rrr rrr" - but the engine wouldn't catch. Then he'd go back to the front entrance, look around in a state of confusion, and then walk back to his scooter again, repeating the process. I watched him do this five or six times before I finished my coffee, and the whole time he never said a word to anyone. By the time I left several other people watching him, all probably wondering - as I was - whether or not they should intervene.
With Pingtung's aging population, it seems likely that many residents are getting behind the wheel of a car (or jumping on a scooter) with failing eyesight, lack of motor control or some other form of age-related impairment. A look at various county government sites seems to bear out this conclusion. There are, on average, twice the number of deaths relative to the number of births. Around ten people die every month in traffic accidents. The largest age group is 59 year olds. The average age is 77.59. Given that people under 18 can't (or at least shouldn't) be driving cars, you don't need to be a mathematician to get an indication of just how many older people are on the roads in this area.
Local law enforcement has been doing its best to ensure safe roads for all, but with the length and size of the county determining who should and who shouldn't be driving is an almost herculean task. And this of course assumes that residents licensed (or unlicensed) to drive even care whether or not they should be driving. Many people consider driving to be a right, and they don't consider their fitness to drive an issue.
There's also a difference between country and city driving. Things like exceeding the speed limit, running red lights and parking wherever you want are endemic to rural Pingtung, even though they lead to problems when carried into more urban areas. Of course some people like to get judgmental and say "They should all follow the traffic rules!" but really, sometimes following traffic rules too closely can get you into trouble. Just try following the speed limit down the length of highways 1 or 17. You'll have a large truck on your bumper in no time.
Compounding this problem is the state of the roads in Pingtung, and the question of whether some roads are safe for anyone to drive on. There are intersections and stretches of road in this county that I actively avoid. When driving a car in Pingtung City, I'll go out of my way to avoid intersections near the train station. When riding a scooter in Fangliao, I get very nervous when crossing Highway 1. When riding a bike in Xinpi, I exercise extreme caution on the Moutainside Highway. Worst of all are the traffic islands of Chaozhou, where I'm always expecting someone's grandma to drive directly into the side of our car.
Not that I'm blaming all of the older people for being on the road. I hope to be older myself one day. I just hope that when we are older someone has the wisdom and wherewithal to explain to us - in words we can understand - when and why we shouldn't be driving.