Driving in China

I have a Chinese driver's licence!

Well, I HAD a Chinese driver's licence. Easiest thing I ever got.

You get off the plane in Beijing. There's a Motor Vehicle Office right there in the airport. You show them your 'International Driver's Permit' which you bought from the C.A.A for twenty-five bucks and which looks as official as the Mother's Day card you made in Grade Three. They take your picture, type in some Chinese characters, laminate it all together - bam, there's your licence. Oh yeah, twenty bucks, give or take. Now, the licence is only good for the duration of your visit - in my case, two days. Still, the licence sits proudly in my wallet. Maybe next time I get pulled over here I'll try giving the officer that one. The whole process takes twenty minutes, much less than the opposite process in Canada. Geez; it takes five days to get a visa to get IN to the country. But as long as you're not over 70 years of age, you're good to go. Because that appears to be the only qualifying criterion.

No road test. No vision test. Nothing.

Once I got out on Beijing roads, it appeared that everyone there got their licences the same way. Either that, or at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box. Because there was scant indication that anyone ever had taken so much as a driving lesson, let alone a driver's test. My host on this visit, the Bentley Motor Car Company of China, supplied us with unofficial 'Rules of the Road'. They didn't look like what you'd see in our Driver's Ed courses.

Number One Rule: Every Space Must Be Filled.

They weren't kidding.

Cars simply dive-bomb in front of you with no warning. The presence of a turn signal offers no better than a random chance that the car is headed in the indicated direction. Sometimes you wonder if they use the turn signals just to fake you out.

Cars seem to be equipped only with an accelerator and a horn. We had one cab driver who would lean on his horn for no reason whatsoever. Then he'd snap his fingers three or four times and launch into what sounded like a Chinese pop song. Maybe the cut-it-with-a-chainsaw air pollution that blankets Beijing eventually gets to you.

Mandarin - the language mostly spoken in the north - apparently has no phrase for 'lane discipline'. The expressways there make the 407 look as orderly as a German autobahn.

Pick a lane, any lane. At any time.

Bicycles, motorcycles, tiny little three-wheeled motorcycles, going the wrong way on one-way streets or on freeway ramps - not at all unusual.  I wondered if there was some sort of engine displacement limit below which stoplights were irrelevant. Bikes, mopeds and those three-wheeled putt-putts ran red lights with abandon, and flagrant disregard for the operators' safety.

One favoured trick for getting wherever you're going ahead of the next guy is - use the shoulder. It's paved; it's fair game. You see this once in a blue moon here; over there, it's part of the deal. I confess, at one point I got stuck behind a slow truck on a hilly twisty road, everyone else was doing it, so, when in Beijing... I was not proud.

I did baulk at passing a marked police van, filled with six officers, on the shoulder. The locals - not so much. Just another obstacle to be overcome.

We had been warned to drive very carefully through rural villages. In one little town, what appeared to be a grandmother was pushing a carriage with a baby in it along the main street. As we approached from behind her - very VERY slowly - she just turned out into the middle of the lane, directly in front of us. This woman was so unaware of the possible presence of a car in her village that it never occurred to her to look over her shoulder. It wasn't only pedestrians. Cars, big trucks, road-building equipment, all parked in the middle of the lane, around a blind corner. Hit one? That's your problem.

The contrasts were mind-boggling, and everywhere.

China is undergoing another revolution, this one motivated by growth and profit, not political ideology. But the returns are wildly unequal.

In these little towns, it would appear that bundles of sticks remain the major source of fuel - everywhere we went, we'd see them piled up beside the road - sometimes in the middle of the road too - being carried on the shoulders of bicycle riders, or on those little motor-trikes. But in the cities, it's like being in a different country. Cars are everywhere.

The automotive population seems dominated by foreign brands, although most of them are locally produced. The Buick Excelle - our Verano - was at last report the best-selling car in the country (where else is Buick Number One?)

The GL8 minivan (anyone remember our short-lived Buick Terraza?) and various cars we knew briefly as Daewoos sport Buick badges there. Apparently the former royal family had a preference for McLaughlin-Buicks; 70 years of Communist rule haven't been enough to erase that up-scale image. Volkswagen is another dominant force, ranging from superannuated Jetta taxis to the long-wheelbase Audi A6 which, always in black, seem to be favoured among what look to be the moneyed elite.

Chinese car companies are doing OK - to build there, foreign manufacturers must joint-venture with local companies. The best-known among them to us is probably Geely, because it bought Volvo. But Chinese car brands don't seem to appeal even to the Chinese - the top-selling Chinese-branded car ranks somewhere in the mid-teens overall.

In Beijing, as part of anti-pollution and anti-crowding policies, two digits are chosen and announced every day; if your licence plate ends in one of those digits, you cannot drive until after 8:00 p.m. Our local hosts assured us this was taken seriously. But by whom? If there were cops around to enforce it, we didn't see any. Which may explain the driving behaviour too. You do the crime, but nobody's around to ensure you do the time.

There are Police Checkpoints all along the roads - big huge things that look like border crossings.

People slow down to pass through them, but we never saw or even heard of anyone actually being checked. We even drove the wrong way into one of these things; the cop got out of his seat just long enough to point us in the right direction, and away we went. Two Caucasians, in rural China, in a quarter of a million dollar Bentley automobile, and it never raised an eyebrow.

Sadly, all of this is reflected in China's traffic crash statistics. Now, any numbers from China are somewhat suspect, but with a third as many cars as, for example, the United States - the best comparison I could find - they have at least twice as many fatalities.

Car crashes are the largest cause of premature death for people under 45 - not unlike Canada, come to that, but the proportion is way higher there. Anecdotally, it seems seat belt use is fairly wide-spread, although in the taxis - mostly two-generation old Hyundai Elantras or those REALLY old A2 (1984-vintage) VW Jettas (which are still being produced for this purpose here) - we could never find the lap buckle in the back seat, and the drivers never seemed to take advantage of their belts.

The lack of modern traffic knowledge by officials is reflected in the fact that apparently driving with your headlights on during the day is prohibited! Unbelievable.

China is obviously a developing country. Some years ago, John Adams, Emeritus Professor of Geography at University College in London, postulated that traffic fatality rates for any country are contingent solely or at least largely on how long the country has been motorized. If he is right, then despite starting with much stronger cars, better-engineered roads, and the vast knowledge of how other countries have done it for over a century, the road to safer driving is going to be another Long March for the Chinese.