I must say that once you get used to the generally accepted driving etiquette, the insane traffic patterns actually become logical, or at least predictable. Since I myself have adopted some of the more local driving habits, I have cut my daily commute to school in half from almost 15 minutes to just under 8! Driving through Taiwan on my scooter is one of my favorite things about living here.
One of the most interesting differences between American traffic and Taiwanese traffic is the use of the horn. In the US, we use the horn to tell the other driver "hey! you're driving like an asshole!" Here in Taiwan, however, the horn is used to tell people "hey! look out! I'm driving like an asshole!"
The most common example of this is when a driver is running a light that has just turned red; this move is particulary popular among cab drivers. The beeping of the horn tells everyone, 'Wait! I know your light just turned green, but watch out - here I come!!'
It should, however, be pointed out that it really is necessary to beep your horn to alert the intersection of your impending arrival because of the next rule: The mear fact that your light is about to turn green is reason enough to begin to cross the intersection. The rule is that if no one is running the light, you can feel free to jump it.
For example: If I'm sitting at this red light --> now, would be a good time for me to start going through the intersection.
As one person told me (and wrote on his website English In Taiwan) - Driving in Taiwan is a bit like down hill skiing:
The people in front of you are the downhill skiers, they have the right of way, no matter what they do. Don't worry to much about the people behind you because they are also worried about the people in front of them. The only difference from snow skiing is if a person merges from one run onto a new run they must yield to the people on the run they are entering. People don't do this in Taiwan when going onto another road, they just go directly onto the new run without looking. So again just think of them as downhill skiers and give then the right of way.
Keeping this in mind, here are some other generaly followed rules of the road:
- Even though right turns on red are technically illegal, it is acceptable, and in some cases expected, to do so. More importantly, it does not require yeilding to - or even looking for - traffic that is legally crossing through the intersection.
- At some intersections, you can also make a left turn on red as long as no one is coming in any other direction.
- It is acceptable to drive the wrong direction down the outside lane of a road when it is more convenient than crossing to the proper side of the street.
- Scooters generally do not have to stop at red lights in T-intersections.
- U-turns are acceptable any time, any where - I have found the best time to make a U-turn is during a red light.
- Generally speaking, no one is ever expected to slow down or yeild to anyone else. Decisions (like whether or not to make a left turn across traffic) are made based on the assumption that everyone will continue on their current path at their current speed regardless of whether or not a car is headed their way. Therefore, if you see someone ahead of you who looks like they're going to turn right into you, don't slow down! That will screw up their internal trajectory calculation and disrupt the order of the road.
All of these rules - or observations of generally accepted points of 'etiquette'- basically flow from two tenets ruling all traffic behaviour in Taiwan:
- The bigger automobile always wins: There is a hierarchy on the road, with bicycles at the bottom: Scooter trumps bike, car trumps scooter, taxi trumps car, truck trumps taxi, bus trumps all. The general train of thought is that whoever is smaller is more likely to get injured in the event of an accident and therefore it is their responsibility to prevent the accident by getting out of the bigger car's way.
--> this becomes terrifyingly obvious when driving a scooter next to a bus: if a bus wants to change lanes and you happen to be in that space, you better get the hell out of there because he's coming whether you move or not!
- He who has the bigger cajones has the right-of-way: many traffic situations come down to a basic game of chicken, and whoever is more determined to stay on their set course will ultimately reign victorious.
Over the last 5 months I have been ridding myself of my American expectations for the flow of traffic and adapting quite nicely to the local way of doing things. Both fear and frustration have, for the most part, disappeared and I've come to enjoy the thrill and excitement of driving through the city. It's a bit like playing a real-life version of the old Atari game "Paperboy"!