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It’s not all their fault. E-mail
City Life - Blogs & Columns
Written by David A. Dayton
I drive my own car here. Some people think I’m nuts. I find it quite convenient, if not a bit stressful. If you don’t drive yourself, you may be oblivious to the traffic around. But chances are you probably sit in back and complain about the traffic and the “drivers” on the road. If you do drive you probably complain about the traffic and the other “drivers” on the road. But take comfort, it’s not just your bad attitude.

The roads in China really are the most dangerous in the world (ask WHO). So be careful and keep complaining, if it makes you feel better. If you are still complaining, and I’ll admit I am, here are some observations that will at least make you think before you flip off the next guy that cuts you off. The most important thing I’ve learned while driving here is that the biggest car in the collision always wins everytime. No, just kidding.

What I’ve learned is that it’s not really all their fault. Really, they can’t help it. The Chinese are not bad drivers; it’s the system that sucks. Don’t believe me? Let me give you a few examples. First, remember when you got your first driver’s license? After a semester long course in 10th grade and 10-15 hours of mandatory driving in a car you got it. So for starters, your education was formally much longer than these folks here. They buy a book, take a test and that may be it. They may drive in a car, with a hired coach, but only for just as long as the coach thinks they need it. If they act competent in 2 hours or 10, that’s all the training they get.

And just because they have some time in the car that doesn’t mean they received quality training. For example, my wife, while practicing driving, was told in no uncertain terms: “There is no such thing as a blind spot! Don’t ever look further back than your mirrors. Looking over your shoulder is illegal.” That pretty much explains 80% of the accidents you see here, doesn’t it?! But who’s fault is that?!

Second, you rode home in a car from the hospital the day you were born. And probably rode in a car, on average, every day of your life from birth on. There are probably no American’s under the age of 80 that can say they remember the first time they drove, let alone rode in, their first car. Most, if not all, Chinese people can tell you when the first car in their village showed up. When the first time they rode in a private car (not a taxi) was. And certainly when the first time they drove was. They’re all newbies when it comes to cars.

And not just new to driving—new to cars!!

You probably cleaned dad’s car as a kid. You my have had older brothers or friends or neighbors that were car nuts. You knew your way in and around cars before you were 10. But, here? You’ve seen him, that guy with the shocked look on his face as you slam on your brakes and blast your horn to avoid hitting him I the middle of the intersection. Or, how about the college graduate who can’t figure out how to get out of the back of a van (true story)? Or the lady driving her own car who has no clue what any gears other than R and D are for or that her car has wipers (another true story)!

There is no car culture here. Being from the West, you know to look both ways before you cross the street; you know how to open a car door; you know that the bigger the car the more time it takes to stop; you know cars can’t see people in dark clothes running across the 5 lane freeway in the middle of the night; you know that there are sidewalks for a very good reason. You know that you can defrost your windshield without opening your window in the middle of winter. You know that your car uses both oil and gas and that they are not the same thing and you probably know how to change or pump both too. Because of that knowledge you are unique over here.

Third, In the US the most expensive insurance class of drivers are teenagers. Why? Lack of experience and tons of social pressure. Ditto China. No one in China has been driving for more than 10 years. (And if they’ve been driving that long they’ve been driving in the army.) Most people on the road have had their license for only the last 2-5 years. And, they have enormous social pressures (face) to keep up now that they have a car. That makes them all relative teenagers behind the wheel. Inexperience and testosterone are a bad combination no matter what the culture you’re in.

Although I was driving tractors on my father’s farm before, I’ve been driving with a license since I was 16. That means that I’ve been driving for more than 20 years. In 5 years in Shenzhen, and I ask every taxi I get in, I have never meet anyone who has been driving longer than me and only a couple of people that have been driving for 10 plus years.

Fourth, while the surface of the roads themselves are pretty nice, the organization is really really bad. The guy backing up on the freeway to get back to his exit? Not his fault. Signs are posted at or even after exits, not before. The guy drifting into your lane without looking? Not his fault. Roads often change from 4 lanes to 3 with no notice and for no reason. The guy making a U-turn from the right lane. Ok, that’s his fault. But you get the picture. It’s really not all their fault that driving here is such a nightmare.

Fifth, you know how many people drink and you know they’re all driving now too, right? Drunk driving is really no big deal, socially, here. Even in college in the US, frat parties usually have a designated driver. Bai-jiu business meetings and all night karaoke parties here do not. How rude to have someone miss all the fun! You probably remember campaigns by MADD, or wrecked cars outside of high school gates before graduation to remind students not to drink and drive—none of that is done here because no teenagers drive! You don’t get any of the (drinking &) driving cultural lessons until you are much older, if at all, here in China.

Sixth, I think that the “unless I get caught it’s not wrong” mentality really affects driving quality, among other things. Add to that the concept of “don’t offend anyone as they may be a resource in the future” and you have millions of drivers who don’t follow the rules and don’t call out anyone else—i.e. there is no community policing of driving laws in China. You screw up on the freeway in America and everyone for 4 lanes will honk and yell obscene things at you. Heck, some people will even follow you home just to yell at you. Here? Everyone does it, so why get angry? What’s the point, they may not even know what they did wrong.

Seventh, police enforcement is specific and sporadic. Let me explain. Police and cameras enforce specific laws at specific times in specific places. Just for example, let’s say that on Monday police in Shenzhen are going to stop all white private cars and check for registration papers. Or on Tuesday they are going to stop all mid-sized trucks and check emissions. Camera’s only check for speed red light violations and they are in fixed spots, so drivers know they only have to obey the laws in those few areas with (working) policemen and cameras. If you know that the chances are slim to none that you’ll get caught anywhere else then breaking the rules is never even a question. You just do whatever you want. Why wouldn’t you?

Other factors:

Complete-coverage insurance at very low rates means that trucks and buses hit people and honestly don’t care. Fines for breaking laws, if you do actually get busted, are so low it’s ridiculous. In Shenzhen, with the highest income levels in the country, its only RMB500 for running a red light and RMB200 for speeding in the city. Compare that with $279 for the lowest traffic violation fee in CA.

One side note, if you do get a ticket you can’t pay it by mail or credit card. In fact you can’t even find out what it costs by mail or by phone or even on line (but you can look on line to see if you have a ticket—and you can check on anyone else too, if you know their license plate number! Talk about voyeuristic fun!). You have to return to the city where you were given the ticket and get it physically printed out at the “Traffic Control Department” and then pay it in cash at another department! Really. Of course since this is suck a ridiculous system a quasi-legal service economy has grow up to fill the gap. You can hire an “agent” to go and print out and pay the tickets for you. They charge you per ticket depending on how far away you are from the ticket location. They claim to service every city in the country. Who says the Chinese aren’t creative!?

See, not such a crazy idea after all, is it? Drivers here are uniquely equipped to drive in this very Chinese system. And, like most things in China, us few participating foreigners aren’t going to change the system no matter how many fingers fly and no matter how many times we lay on the horn. Complain if you want, but it’s not changing—not with 1 million new cars on the road each week!

David A. Dayton is the CEO of Silk Road International (SRI), an U.S.-owned and managed international procurement agency based in China. Click here to visit SRI's Website.

Our valuable Editor David A. Dayton has been with us since Monday, 02 November 2009.

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+1 #4 Peter 2010-10-18 06:12
such a good article. I see these things way too often. before I got an electric bike, I was somewhat oblivious to many things. but after being out on the road with these drivers you really do get concerned sometimes.

will we ever have world champion Rally or F1 drivers from China..
+2 #3 Gorch 2010-10-11 11:00
Quoting rschwendeman:
Where did you get the absolutely priceless picture of the traffic jam shown above?

I'd recommend going up Nan Men and looking north. The view is similar, and it's even more entertaining when you watch it in slow motion...
+2 #2 ND 2010-10-10 08:37
Quoting rschwendeman:
Where did you get the absolutely priceless picture of the traffic jam shown above?

That's an authentic picture from a city in China. Source: Google :-)
+1 #1 rschwendeman 2010-10-06 12:20
Where did you get the absolutely priceless picture of the traffic jam shown above?

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