April 19, 2004

Getting around, the Chinese way. Part I: How to drive.

Andy Wood | Frivolity | Road Safety | Third World Transport

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen reports that China has the worst record for road deaths in the world. I can't say I'm in the least bit surprised.

About eight years ago, I backpacked from Shanghai to Beijing. I flew to Shanghai from Tokyo. Customs at the airport was unmanned, to my surprise and relief, as I had experienced everything short of an intimate cavity search at the hands of Japanese customs a fortnight earlier. A fellow passenger, whom I sat next to on the plane, was a Chinese-American, visiting his family in Shanghai. His father was to pick him up at the airport, and he offered to give me a lift to my hotel. Thus began my induction into the Chinese way of getting around. I have never known terror like it.

During that twenty minute trip from the airport to my hotel, I was able to discern a few rules for driving on Chinese roads, which I summarise here as a little FAQ.

1. How do I control my car?

Chinese cars are designed differently from Western ones. In common with Western cars, they have a steering wheel, but their foot controls consist of a clutch, an accelerator and a horn. Don't worry about the clutch. Only the accelerator and the horn are important.

2. How do I change lanes?

Discipline is important. First, identify a gap between two cars in the adjacent lane. It doesn't have to be big, a couple of feet will do. Next, nudge your car into the gap. The gap may or may not widen. If it doesn't, nudge your car out and try again. If it does, you are free to complete your manoeuvre. On completion, some drivers like to use a flashing yellow light to let other drivers know that they have just changed lanes. This is optional, however. Those silvered glass things sticking out of the sides of your car are rather pretty, don't you think? I wonder whose idea it was to put them there.

3. What do I do if a car tries to change lanes in front of me?

Defensive driving is vital. Firmly depress the accelerator. It may be necessary to use the steering wheel to swerve slightly. On no account give way. Defend your road space, whatever the cost may be. If you lose it, you will lose face, which is not a Good Thing. If, however, you are caught daydreaming and a car succefully nudges in in front of you, you can mitigate your loss of face by pressing the horn firmly with your foot.

4. Which side of the road do I drive on?

This is the most complicated rule. To understand it requires some prior knowledge of elementary quantum mechanics, so as homework, I want you to go and learn about Schroedinger's cat. Shanghai streets are a large scale demonstration of quantum mechanics at work. It is not possible to observe the position of an oncoming vehicle until you meet it. Prior to that, the vehicle is neither on the same side of the road as you, nor on the opposite side, but in, what is known as, a superposition of states. Once your vehicles meet, you can observe the other's position and the uncertainty will be resolved. With equal probabilities, it will either be on the same side of the road as you, or the opposite side. If the former, you will collide; if the latter, you will pass each other harmlessly.

Those who are already comfortable with quantum mechanics will be aware that the whole business of superposition of states applies not only to the objects under observation but also to your own mind. Classically, in the second or so before a collision, you will be in a state of abject terror; in the seconds before missing each other, you will be serene and calm. In quantum mechanics, however, just as the oncoming vehicle is in a superposition of states prior to your meeting each other, so your mind is also in a superposition of states of terror and serenity. It's a very interesting emotion to experience.

5. What do I do if there is a queue of cars ahead of me?

Simply cross to the other side of the street and drive past the queue. Remember, communism is supposed to be an egalitarian ideology, and a queue of cars which goes only one way along the street isn't very egalitarian, is it?

6. How do I approach a junction?

Keep your right foot steady on the accelerator and use your left foot to press the horn. Englishmen like to slow down when approaching junctions, but they're a rather quaint folk who fret about whether the milk or the tea should be poured into the cup first. Don't worry about anything they say.

7. What do I do if I crash my car?

Ideally, you will have crashed your car in the middle of a junction, but fate cannot always be so kind. In any case, you should get out of your car and fight with the other driver. Plenty of pushing and shoving is appropriate. As with rule 3, the important thing is not to lose face.


Chinese traffic has to be seen to be believed. I really did scream when I worked out rules 2 and 3. The driver of the car made a comment that my new friend translated as "Why's he worried? Chinese drivers are the best drivers in the world." On my first morning in Shanghai, I spent a nervous ten minutes working out how to cross the road. I was told that it used to be common for buses to plough their way through packs of cyclists. That was under the old communist rules where the bus company was owned by the state and couldn't be sued, nor could the driver be sacked or otherwise punished. After the law was changed so that bus drivers could be punished, the frequency of such accidents declined.

I haven't travelled in any other Third World country, but I understand that many of them have similar problems. A Frenchman I met reckoned that the traffic in Manila was even worse. However, his complaint was that the streets were permanently gridlocked rather than excessively dangerous.

The state of our own transport system, whether it be its safety or convenience, is a frequent source of complaint, but people really do have things a lot worse in some other countries. I sometimes wonder if we don't count our blessings enough.

Coming soon: Getting around, the Chinese way. Part II: How to buy a ticket.

Trackbacks

Why?
Why do some drivers, when they come across a short queue of vehicles stopped at a pedestrian crossing outside a school, with eight crossing guards in high-visibility vests escorting schoolchildren across the road, think it is acceptable behaviour to ov...
Single Planet on October 5, 2004

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