Visitors to Taiwan who only visit the capital Taipei come away with a variety of impressions, but unless their jobs back home fall somewhere between cabbie and professional demolition derby driver, very rarely is this
“Boy, I’d sure like a chance to drive around in this city!”
Though tame by the standards of many Asian cities, Taipei’s traffic can seem a bit chaotic to drivers from the west. Add to this the fact that Taipei has one of the best public transportation systems in the world, and that taxis are affordable and everywhere. So few casual visitors feel inclined to drive themselves around Taipei, which is probably a good thing for all involved.
However, visitors looking to explore Taiwan beyond Taipei will find an eminently drivable landscape. And while Taiwan has one of the best overall public intercity transportation systems in Asia, having a set of wheels at your disposal opens up endless avenues of exploration.
The first thing any short-term visitor looking to drive themselves around the island need to know is how to go about renting a vehicle.
Renting a Car in Taiwan
As a quick Google search of Rental Cars in Taiwan reveals, Taiwan has no shortage of rental car companies, ranging from international chains like AVIS to local mom and pop car rental places. You can choose and reserve your car online, but keep in mind that you’ll need to provide all relevant documentation before they’ll put you in the driver’s seat. Many rental companies have satellite offices at Taiwan’s international airports, and some offer an airport pick-up service for an additional fee.
Once upon a time, Taiwan had a wilder west approach to things like car rental. (This went double for motorcycle rentals, when all a foreign guest needed to rent a scooter was photo ID, four working limbs and some money.) But those days are long gone. Nowadays, you’ll need to have your paperwork in order. Specifically, any non-Taiwanese citizen looking to rent a car needs to produce the following:
- Driver’s license from their home country;
- An International driver’s permit issued in their home country;
- A valid Visa / MasterCard Card (A Debit card won’t cut it.) Your credit card won’t just be used to pay for the car; it can also be charged weeks or months later for any speeding tickets and traffic infractions caught on camera.
Having covered how to rent a car in Taiwan, let’s talk about the basic rules of the road:
Driving in Taiwan: The Basics
- Taiwan drives North American style, on the right side of the road.
- Distance and speed limits are measured in kilometers, not miles.
- Turning right on red is technically illegal.
- Cameras and speed-measuring radars are fairly ubiquitous, so…just because you didn’t get pulled over for speeding or going through that red light doesn’t mean you got away with it. Most rental companies insist on keeping a credit card imprint to pay for any fines you may have accrued in their cars.
- Gasoline is sold by the liter, not the gallon.
- Whether turning or switching lanes on freeways, Taiwanese drivers tend to use turn signals on a somewhat more “optional” basis than their western counterparts. Be prepared.
- Most (but not all) road signs and street signs have both English and Chinese. However, English spellings of towns, streets and even cities are amusingly inconsistent from place to place. (Hsinchu and Shinju, Taitung and Taidong, Zhongshan Road and Chung Shan Road…the list is endless.)
Fender benders are common. In the event of an accident, don’t move your car. Stay calm, dial 110 and wait for the police to arrive.
And finally, on the subject of Taiwan’s Finest, police roadblocks and random sobriety checks are fairly common, especially in the evenings and around holidays. If the officer suspects you’ve been drinking, they’ll give you a breathalyzer test. Should the test result in a BAC 0.15ml or above, your Taiwan experience will take an interesting turn, one involving a ride in the back of a police car, heavy fines and legal repercussions that you’ll remember for years to come. But unlike the memories of the winding drive to Sun Moon Lake, these memories won’t be quite as happy. So if you’re driving in Taiwan, stick to Mr. Brown Coffee and betel nut.
And finally, an introduction to the roads themselves, starting with the freeways:
Marked with signs shaped like a green flower, Freeways are the only toll roads in Taiwan (Because freedom isn’t always free). Tolls are collected electronically, so as a visitor you’ll pay when you return your rental car. At 1.2 NT per kilometer (Under 5 cents USD), Taiwan’s freeway tolls are fairly inexpensive.
Freeway 3: Also known as Formosa Freeway, Route three is Taiwan’s second North-South freeway in Taiwan. It begins in Keelung City and ends in Pingtung, running a bit further inland than Route 1. (Read more: Pingtung: Expect the Unexpected)
Freeway 5: Route 5 begins in Taipei City and ends in Yilan on Taiwan’s Northeast coast. The official name is the Chiang Wei-shui Memorial Freeway, after the early twentieth century Taiwanese political activist and Yilan native Chiang Wei-shui.
And continuing with the roads:
Roads in Taiwan
Taiwan’s road network is relatively dense, particularly around Taipei. Road conditions are generally good, but motorists driving in the mountains should be mindful of the fact that Taiwan’s mountain roads are especially vulnerable to damage from typhoons and earthquakes, and are thus regularly under repair.
One of the most popular roads in Taiwan (Route 8 from Hualien to Taroko Gorge) is under near-constant repair, so drivers should be prepared to pull over, stretch their legs and enjoy the view as road crews control the flow of traffic on sections currently under repair. Many of the most beautiful roads in Taiwan are in mountainous regions (and hence require frequent maintenance).
As for what roads are worth driving on, well…that subject deserves it’s own article. So watch this space!
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