Harmonise driving rules for HK and the mainland

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 May, 2003, 12:00am

Twenty years ago, few would have predicted that almost 10,000 private cars would have made two million trips between Hong Kong and Guangdong in 2002. Construction of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen Highway had barely started and its proponent, Gordon Wu Ying-sheung, was greeted with either admiration or derision for trying to prepare the mainland for the age of motoring. Now, Mr Wu has been proved a visionary and the highway has become a trunk road that has brought riches to cities and villages along the way.

In one crucial aspect, however, things have failed to change. It remains impossible for ordinary people from both sides to drive to the other side. The privilege of owning a car licensed to run in both Hong Kong and on the mainland is still reserved for the well-off, and the rules on obtaining such a licence remain obscure. Even the Transport Department in Hong Kong has refused to disclose the quota of cross-border vehicle licences.

That is unacceptable. With closer integration between Hong Kong and the mainland, more and more people on both sides have developed intimate social and business ties. Their aspirations to drive across the border should no longer be ignored. What is the rationale behind the current system of limiting the number of cross-border vehicles? On what criteria have the mainland authorities been issuing their permits? If the quota has been imposed because of the limited capacity of the existing crossings, then that should be relaxed when the Western Corridor linking Yuen Long and Shekou is completed in 2005. But that will still leave unanswered the question of how the licences are being awarded by the mainland authorities.

The motoring culture has definitely arrived on the mainland, with private car sales surpassing the one million mark last year and continuing to rise. Despite 'one country, two systems', people on both sides of the border have a right to ask why they cannot drive their cars across to the other side, subject to immigration rules, just as Americans and Canadians do.

The Beijing municipal government has recently adopted new rules allowing Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan residents to obtain a three-month temporary driving licence in the capital without doing a local test. It is time Hong Kong and Guangdong moved to adopt similar arrangements or a system for the mutual recognition of driving qualifications. Also due for review is whether taking one's car across the border should remain a privilege reserved for a few.

A related issue that needs to be addressed is for Hong Kong to switch to driving on the right as the mainland does. For the sake of traffic safety, it simply makes no sense for this city to stick to the British way of driving on the left. Just think about how much easier it would be to drive north without having to switch lanes or worrying about crashing into oncoming traffic when trying to cut across lanes. Making the switch would involve elaborate planning on how Hong Kong roads may need to be modified and when and how vehicles with steering wheels on the left would be introduced. This is an issue that should no longer be dodged as it will only become more pressing over time.