The BBC’s Taiwan correspondent, Cindy Sui has written an important and timely article about safety here in Taiwan.
It comes off the back of a number of high profile disasters the country has experienced in the past year including two plane crashes - both seemingly caused by pilot error - a huge series of explosions here in Kaohsiung caused by unmaintained commercial pipes running through residential areas, and most recently a catastrophic fire at a Water Park concert in Taipei where coloured powder being sprayed on the audience ignited and caused injuries to more than 500 as well as several deaths.
The catastrophic aftermath of the Kaohsiung explosions last year
She highlights some of the crucial factors that have caused these major disasters and countless others. Failure to enforce laws at both a local and national level is common-place.
Looking out of my window here I can see at least three illegal structures on the tops of buildings which should, by the letter of the law be torn down. They have been there for many years though, and will doubtless be there for many more.
As a relatively new democracy, politicians are paranoid about taking any actions that might upset voters, which means that voters can get away with doing many things they shouldn’t.
Almost all politicians at both a local and national level have ‘close’ (lets avoid using the word ‘corrupt’) relationships with businesses, and will therefore not pass legislation that might impact on their interests, and won’t enforce laws that are already in place.
Cindy highlights one of my great bugbears about Taiwan. Despite being one of the safest countries on earth, with one of the lowest burglary rates on the planet, many people still insist on having bars on all their windows. This is case with almost all houses, and also many flats, even if they are located on the 23rd floor.
The depressing site of barred windows on houses in Taiwan
Not only is this massively dangerous in the event of a fire, and the cause of numerous deaths, but it also contributes to many people living in prison-like conditions.
A paranoia about exposure to the sun, and a fashion for pale skin, as well as a desire to keep homes cool in the blazing hot summers, means many homes are kept in near darkness. A dark, dingy environment with barred windows is not a great environment to bring up children, or indeed for anyone to live in, and it is little wonder that many young people here have both poor eyesight and an addiction to their smart-phones and computer games rather than an interest in playing sport or getting outside.
She also touches on the failure to enforce or adhere to seatbelt rules. This is true, as sadly it is in many parts of the world, but the point should also be expanded to cover the blatent disregard for almost all traffic laws.
Speeding is commonplace on all roads and when you drive on a motorway you expect to be both overtaken and undertaken, as well as tailgated by any vehicle which can’t get past you.
Traffic lights are all too often seen as optional with many drivers of cars and scooters believing its fine to turn right on a red light, and quite frequently, that its fine to go straight-on at a red light too.
There is no evidence of any efforts by police or local authorities to put a stop to this, and hence aggressive illegal driving has over the past decade become the norm here. The result: when you go out it is now more common to see a crash than not to see one, and whilst I don’t have the stats to hand, I can only imagine that road traffic injuries and deaths has gone up considerably.
Safety, and in particular enforcing safety laws properly, is an area where Taiwan badly needs to get its house in order. Major events like those highlighted in Cindy’s article damage the reputation of the country, and will have an economic impact as well.
And for ex-pats living here, and overseas visitors as well, the sight of barred windows and reckless driving gives an impression which simply does not tally with the Taiwan I have experienced living here, and the Taiwanese people I meet every day.