One of the first things that becomes obvious when you visit Taiwan, is that motor scooters are the most common method of transportation for its people. There are plenty of cars and trucks on the road, but aside from the main highways, motor scooters seem to dominate about 10 to 1. The reasoning seems simple. Taiwan is very densely populated within heir cities, and there is little space for parking and traffic. Whereas cars can be clogged in long traffic jams miles long, motor scooters always seem to fluidly squeeze through every crack and crevice to get to their final destination. The Taiwanese are also very practical. It costs about $2 to fill up a tank with gas, and that can last a week typically. The motor scooter can carry a person and their friend, and sometimes (although it is against the law), a family of five. It is also the law in Taiwan to wear helmets, but I usually see about 15%-20% of the riders without one.
If I was going to start gaining some independence from my family and get around by myself in Taiwan, I had to learn to drive a motor scooter. I didn’t have a car, and it was going to take awhile to save up to buy a used one. I putted around the small country roads behind our house first. Then I experimented on the small town streets of Sigang. Doing well enough there, my wife and I decided I was ready to get my driver’s license and my motor cycle (motor scooter, too) license, which was good for any 2-wheeler with over a 50 cc engine.
The first thing I had to get used to as an American navigating Taiwanese traffic, was that the rules of law don’t always apply. A driver has to be prepared to find cars or cycles going through red lights, or going the opposite direction in the wrong lane. Cars and trucks often park in the designated cycle lanes, and most dangerous of all, speeding cars often use the cycle lanes to pass other cars. In the city centers, especially near markets, the scenes are chaotic. Streets are moving obstacle courses, teeming with people walking with children, old people in wheelchairs, bicycles, motorcycles, buses, and trucks. People weave in and out in every direction. It is a wonder that no one gets hurt more, but the best I can describe the reason there are so few injuries is that there is “respectful” chaos. People are very aware, and respectful of other people and vehicles around them. There are a few exceptions with the Taiwanese, though, especially with the younger generation. In America, people with “me first” attitudes would be dangerous on Taiwanese roads.
On the way to the “DMV” in Madou, my wife let me drive the scooter to get in some final practice. She rode on the back. I enjoyed the feel of the cool wind that morning and was aware of the slick road below me. I thought about how focused one had to be when driving in Taiwan. I remembered how driving in America sometimes felt like it was done on auto-pilot. I remembered all of my experiences on Taiwanese roads and wondered how there were so few fatalities.
“People really had their lives in their hands when driving,” I thought. Just a minute later, I came upon a slow-moving motor cycle in my lane, and a family with kids walking on the street. Just as I was about to drive between them, the motor cycle rider swerved in front of me. Instead of swerving into the small child on the road, all I could do was to hit the brake, continue forward and brace myself. The impact was minimal, but I did hit my knee hard against the other motorcycle, scraping off some skin. This definitely seemed like reinforcement of my previous thoughts.
We arrived at the DMV a few minutes later, and Shu-min told me to practice on the cycle course. There were a few basic moves to perfect, which included driving between two parallel lines at a very slow speed, and showing that I know how to stop at railroad crossings, stop lights and knowing how to use my turn signals. This sounds simple enough, but when I performed the actual test, I barely passed with a 76 score.
Now, as a licensed driver, I am driving back and forth from my English classes in the next town. Traffic is very light, and the near misses have been few. I have learned to be more “respectful” and a bit more proactive in avoiding accidents. Just last week, I experienced driving home in a thunderstorm. It was a heart-pounding adventure I hope not to repeat too often. A typhoon is on its way today and the winds are very strong. Typhoon season has begun early this year. I am sure there are more motor-scootering adventures for me to report in the near future.