Over the past few years, Taiwan has been successful in drawing ever-growing numbers of tourists from across the world, again surpassing 10 million in 2016. Visitors have at their disposal a wide range of modern transportation options, from domestic flights to the high-speed rail system as well as various rail services and regular long-distance buses.
However, tour buses chartered by travel agencies have become “the sick man” of Taiwanese tourism.
Only last year, a troubled driver went as far as starting a fire on board his bus, which eventually led to a crash and to the death of 26 people, most of them tourists from China.
While ascribed mainly to political factors – China punishing Taiwan for electing a president from the Democratic Progressive Party – there is the possibility that recurring accidents involving buses transporting Chinese tourists have been partly to blame for the drop in the number of visitors from that country.
Despite loud calls for reforms, last year’s sad event was outdone on February 13 when a tour bus carrying 44 Taiwanese citizens about to arrive home from viewing cherry orchards flipped over by the side of a highway, killing 33 people, including the bus driver.
In the immediate aftermath, several elements were suggested as having caused the accident, including excessive speed, with the bus traveling at 80 kilometers per hour in a location where the maximum limit was 60 kph.
The travel agency initially claimed that driver fatigue could not have played a part, but that statement was blown to pieces when the daughter of the driver said her father had been working almost 16 days non-stop, while on his only day off he only arrived home during the morning and had to go out again during the afternoon to prepare his vehicle for the next day’s journey.
The woman’s claim landed a particularly hard punch in the light of the recent months of sniping over the government’s workweek reform plans, when the transportation sector demanded exceptions from the rule of seven working days with two days off.
Another possible element which might have contributed to the accident would be the condition of the bus, which was almost 20 years old.
The operator emphasized the vehicle was produced by reputable Swedish truck and bus manufacturer Volvo. However, the garishly colored buses seen on Taiwan’s roads have often been assembled from parts old and new, creating doubts about their safety.
After the death toll turned Monday’s crash into the worst road accident in 30 years, the initial response from the authorities centered on the absence of stringent rules guiding the use of safety belts.
Making wearing them on buses compulsory is likely to save lives, yet it is also only a symptom that is being addressed. If bus drivers are allowed to continue working unrealistically long hours, safety belts will not prevent accidents.
On the one hand, travel agencies and bus operators cobble together itineraries which cram too many destinations into too short a time, with an early morning start, difficult and distant destinations in the mountains, and a late return. During the day, the tour will stop at restaurants and shops where commissions can be earned.
On the other hand, travelers will demand the inclusion of many sights but in return for a low price, fueling practices that will in the end not benefit either travelers or drivers. The daughter of the driver who died in the February 13 accident mentioned how her father left early each morning and returned exhausted late at night.
After the accident, the unseemly but all-too-frequent sight emerged of companies trying to blame each other in order to escape the financial repercussions of the disaster. The tour agency and a transport company initially refused to acknowledge who owned the bus, while the report came out that they had avoided paying social security for the driver.
Writing about the crash, a Hong Kong commentator said that Taiwanese laws lagged even behind those of Egypt, where he said he had seen how each tour bus had two drivers, with extra space on board for a bathroom and a bed to sleep.
As usual, the law is only one aspect of the matter, enforcement and respect are often lacking.
The government needs to launch a wholesale approach which covers the treatment of drivers, vehicle maintenance, and measures benefiting passengers.
Tougher sanctions to revoke licenses from bus operators who fail to maintain their vehicles in order are already on the way. More intensive reviews and checkups of the buses will be needed, while the companies will need to treat their drivers as regular humans who need time to sleep and eat.
The remark by the Hong Kong commentator about Egypt should be taken note of. Drivers and travelers should not rush about from one sight to the other in as little time of possible, and longer routes should be covered by at least two drivers, one of which is allowed a decent place to relax while his colleague works.
The public can only hope that this time the government is serious. Thorough and strict inspections must be kept up and not die down after a few months, otherwise the whole vicious cycle will start again after another accident a few months down the road.