An interesting quote by a long-time expat in Beijing from some years ago: “The Chinese Highway Code is extensive and if you read it, and if it were followed, it would put the Chinese driver at an extremely high level. Unfortunately I have to say that I believe that the majority of Chinese drivers haven’t even seen this set of rules, let alone follow them! Chinese drivers are extremely aggressive in their driving style and care little (i.e. not at all, if they even realize they are there!) for those people and vehicles around them and generally completely ignore the rules of the road. Until the Chinese authorities introduce a Traffic Department as part of the police force, and start to clamp down on drivers breaking the rules by hitting them where it hurts (in the pocket), then I only see the situation deteriorating as the level as traffic increases.”
THINGS HAVE CHANGED SOMEWHAT
It is funny to think that 95% of all drivers in China have had their driver’s license fewer than five years. Beijing adds about 1,500 new cars a day, and it is not the largest city in China. We take driving for granted in the U.S. because we are an automobile culture, and have been since after WWII. Chances are when your parents were pregnant with you they had a car, and their parents them; depending on how old you are, maybe even one more generation beyond that.
When I was in Beijing in January I was driving – or being driven; foreigners cannot drive unless they pass a test which according to my sister-in-law is very difficult – I passed a line of maybe 150 identical cars with five passengers in each. The procession was odd, so I asked what was happening. It is a local driving school, I was told. Everyone is learning to drive and they are practicing on the relatively empty outskirts of the northeastern part of the city. This was just one company on a Tuesday, in the afternoon. The cars crawled at fifteen or twenty miles per hour following each other; the drivers’ faces tense as they copied the driver in front of them. Regular drivers swerving into the opposite lane of oncoming traffic to get around this interminable line only made the new drivers more nervous. They do this practicing several times and then are ready to pass a driving test. It was a comedy, and terrifying too. Truth be told, the swerving into oncoming traffic did not make me feel much better. Our driver, J’s usual, has a picture of a Ferrari on his mobile phone. He craves speed and sharp corners. He honks incessantly and veers into oncoming traffic taking cat whisker width chances. He does pass in the emergency lane. He is a professional driver. That recklessness is what happens to all drivers after they pass their test and become suddenly overconfident. It is why insurance for young drivers is so high and why rental car companies do not rent to those under twenty-five. This is no video game; there is no re-apparate. The number of traffic deaths has soared in China.* ++
The highway safety here is getting better. Back in the old days, as quoted from the expat above, the usual passing lane was the emergency median on the right. The government became much stricter after a massive car pile-up happened and the ambulances and fire trucks could not get to the accident. People died as a result. Traffic police can no longer issue tickets, as they are too susceptible to bribes. The answer: put cameras everywhere. Take pictures of everything. At the end of the year you are sent a bill with all your infractions detailed, points deducted, and monies owed courtesy of the People’s Republic of China Ministry of Public Security; Department of Traffic Safety. You had better pay your bill; and people do. My brother remarked yesterday that the system is working because on our six hour drive no one passed in the emergency lanes, and people obeyed the speed limit. I guess there is something to be said for a big brother. It is not that the Chinese drivers are bad drivers, they just haven’t the experience.
Given the inexperience of the drivers and the very powerful cars here makes me more forgiving of the idiocy one faces every day, but it means one has to be more vigilant too. One only hopes that not too many people will die from traffic fatalities as the inexperienced drivers mature and can pass on some of that experience to the next generation. The problem is that as a control freak passenger there is nothing I can do wear my seatbelt and hope for the best.
I lost two very close friends when I was young to drunk driving. They were drunk and they were driving; driving fast and without seatbelts. I was made fun of because I wore a seatbelt in High School. I make passengers in the back seat wear seatbelts when I drive. Hey, you don’t like it? WALK!
Please buckle up…and hey! Let’s be careful out there (Old TV show reference)
Oh, if you want to see some of the silly questions for foreigners who want to drive in China, follow the link below…some of the questions are priceless http://www.shekouonline.com/drivingtest.html
On a separate note: I do believe that China missed the boat in the car modernization game; they could have mandated an electric car system here, and the world would have followed. With the the largest auto market in the world and growing exponentially, BMW, Mercedes, etc. would have jumped at the opportunities to sell whatever the mandate. Even if the government started with buses and way stations for battery swapping as they built the highway infrastructures, the transition would have been easier. Oh well, I am not surprised at the short-term profit seeking. It is what we are as a species, no?