Signs that bad driving is finally getting the red light in China

Fri, Jan 4, 2013, 00:00

Beijing Letter:Driving in China is still a tough call. While it is not quite the terrifying experience it used to be, it remains to be seen if a raft of new traffic rules will make things better or worse.

The days when you could see the tarmac beneath your feet whizzing past through holes in the floor of a Beijing taxi are gone. And the sight of people reversing on the exit ramp to the dual carriageway is becoming rarer. It still happens a lot but is definitely less frequent.

As anyone who has been to Beijing will tell you, driving habits can be at best eccentric and at worst downright terrifying. But in eight years in China, the situation has been improving, and the latest step has been to start enforcing the rules of the road.

Will it work? One law looks almost certain to cause chaos. Drivers are legally obliged to stop at amber traffic lights as if they were red lights.

Run an amber light twice and you have to resit your test.

The new rules forbid U-turns on the highway and also try to stop people driving on the lay-by to overtake traffic jams.

70,000 deaths each year

According to the Ministry of Public Security, 70,000 people a year die and 300,000 others are injured in road collisions and incidents every year. In the first 10 months of last year, nearly 800 people were killed by drivers breaking red lights.

China has 238 million motorised vehicles and 256 million drivers, and the numbers are rising every year by more than 16 million vehicles and 20 million drivers during the past five years.

The situation is improving, but there is a lot of work to do.

“Many Chinese drive cars as if they are riding a bike,” Liu Pan, professor and researcher on road safety at Southeast University, told the China Daily.

Motorists will beep their horn angrily at pedestrians crossing the road on a green light at a crossing, and if you’re on foot, the rule is basically that you have to give way to cars at all times. They are bigger than you, after all.

Under the additional rules, motorists are supposed to give way to pedestrians.

The directives implemented by the government will impose a fine on pedestrians who jaywalk of between 60 cent and €6. But, intriguingly, they will also receive a warning, or a fine from 5 yuan (60 cent) to 50 yuan, if caught violating traffic laws.

Authorities will enter repeat offenders on a register, which may affect credit, insurance and job prospects.

The rules are disappointing, as pedestrians are an easy target, and car drivers behave much worse. But even the sacred car might be up for censure.

Traffic sins

I could sense that things were toughening up a few weeks back when online warnings let me know that it was time to pay for my traffic sins.

Lining up to pay parking fines and penalties for traffic violations, I was gladdened to see that I was not the worst offender. Everyone gets to see photographs of their car breaking the law.

The bored police officer sitting behind the counter was showing one man the series of photographs of his white BMW in breach of the law.

There were dozens of images, and he nodded his head as each transgression was exposed, all the while talking to someone on his mobile phone. When he had seen all the photos he took out his credit card, without saying a word.

The next person in the queue felt they should not have to pay as they worked for the government and had been on official business when double-parked in the middle of the street. The offending vehicle had blocked traffic for 20 minutes on a major thoroughfare.

Announcing your cadre status in a queue full of people, when the mood is one of resentment against official corruption, was not a wise move and there were grumblings from the others waiting in line.

The cadre blushed and produced a handful of red 100-yuan bills. Maybe the crackdown on corruption is truly bearing fruit.

The woman in front of me had been ticketed not by police, but by one of a group of freelance traffic cops who are a branch of the chengguan, reviled local government law enforcers who deal with low-level crime in cities.

She asked who gave these chengguan people the right to issue fines. And who had oversight over their activity. “Show me the documents giving them permission?” she asked.

The same people who had hissed at the complaining cadre now backed the irate woman’s question. Right, they said, who gives these people the right to enforce traffic rules? In the face of this hostile reaction, the bureaucrat’s sangfroid was impressive. She simply waited until the questions had stopped, then told the complaining woman to pay up or get out.