Understanding China, One Blog at a Time

An American in China

Reality of Chinese Drivers

Posted by w_thames_the_d on May 22, 2011

from the asiatimes

CHANGSHA, China – With the explosive growth of motor vehicle sales in recent years, traffic accidents in China have also skyrocketed. So much so that the Middle Kingdom has become a world leader in deadly traffic accidents, according to official statistics. Attracting even greater attention from the public, however, is the social injustice behind these traffic accidents.

There were some 30 million cars on the road in the country last year, less than 5% of the world’s total estimated total of more than 600 million). According to Xinhua News Agency, there were more than 320,000 traffic accidents in China in 2007, with 81,649 people killed. As such, China’s death rate due to traffic accidents is six times the world average and accounts for 20% of the world total.

While some may argue that it is inevitable that the number of traffic accidents will grow as the number of vehicles hitting the roads soars, there may be no positive connection between them. During the past two decades, the number of motor vehicles in the United States jumped by 73%, yet the number of people killed in road accidents dropped by 27.5%. In Japan, the number of cars grew threefold, yet casualties due to traffic accidents dropped 55%.

So why is China’s headed in a different? It is not due to a lack of traffic regulations, but rather because these rules are often deliberately ignored, particularly by the rich, privileged and powerful. The social injustice behind this issue has led to an increase in concern from the public.

There is a historical episode that illustrates the situation. In 1901, a provincial governor of the Qing Dynasty offered a car imported from the US to Empress Cixi as a gift for her 66th birthday. This was one of the first cars the Chinese had ever seen. So one day, a happy Cixi ordered her driver to taxi her around in the Forbidden City.

To show appreciation, she rewarded the driver with a big bowl of rice wine before the journey. Overwhelmed by the unexpected favor, the driver quickly emptied the bowl and started the car. Suddenly a small eunuch ran in front of the vehicle. The drunk driver forgot where the brake was and the car ran over the eunuch and killed him.

Needless to say, nothing happened to the driver as a eunuch’s life was worthless. Later, some ministers told Cixi that it was improper for the driver to sit side-by-side with Her Majesty. The empress then ordered the driver’s seat removed and demanded the driver operate the car while dropped down on his knees.

From this some Chinese media commentators have inferred, jokingly, that the bad habit of drunk driving may have historical roots. Still, the story serves as a apt example that – even today – any rule can be bent by the privileged and powerful.

While saying that drunk-driving is a tradition may be an insult to the Chinese, it is true that operating motor vehicles while under the influence is a problem that runs rampant in the country. According to the Ministry of Public Security, it is the top killer during traffic accidents.

Although no statistics are available to indicate who the major offenders are, the general public tends to blame the rich and the powerful for dangerous driving behavior, specifically drunk-driving.

Private cars are quite popular in major Chinese cities nowadays, and luxurious sedans are still associated with social status. For example, the BMW brand is lovingly called Bao Ma, or Precious Horse, and BMW sedans are popular among the newly rich. But in recent years, Bao Ma has almost become a synonym for “traffic accident”. For instance, if you key in the words “Bao Ma” and “traffic accident” on Chinese search engine Baidu.com, you will receive 6,670,000 entries.

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