Driven crazy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 November, 2004, 12:00am

The sight of a navy Buick people-carrier pointing the wrong way down the street was not, in itself, surprising in Beijing's anything-goes traffic. What was surprising was that the driver appeared to be in trouble with the police.

It was so surprising, in fact, that a crowd of two dozen people had stopped to watch. Standing by the driver's window was a traffic policeman, his motorcycle behind him. The Buick driver was calling somebody on his mobile phone, and looked rattled.

Beijing's traffic police are a rare sight, and nobody I know has ever actually seen them do anything useful - with the possible exception of this officer, who told the driver off for driving the wrong way up the road.

Beijing's traffic police are widely despised. One taxi driver once told me why. 'In your country, can a policeman stop your car and ask you to give him something that you have inside?' he asked.

'He can try - but it would get him into trouble with his bosses,' I said.

'Well here, you just give him what he wants and hope he stops there,' said the driver, looking thoroughly depressed.

Traffic police - or any police officers - are less likely to harass people driving a car with a black licence plate, which signifies a foreign-owned vehicle (mainland Chinese citizens have blue licence plates). Nor are they especially likely to stop a private car.

But at the same time, officers do nothing about the madness that rules the roads on the mainland, where most people still drive as if they were sitting behind a donkey cart - leading with their noses, rather than following the rules and thinking constructively about everyone else.

The consequence of this is absolute chaos, and plenty of dangerous driving. China has the highest road-death toll in the world. And pedestrian rage is common, leading foreigners, in particular, to spectacular shows of anger and defiance that are increasingly being met with anger and defiance by drivers. A friend was once cut up by someone driving a new BMW. In the right, and furious, she kicked the car, which was stationary in front of her. To her amazement, the driver got out and started shouting at her, spoiling for a fight.

It has happened to me, too. Riding in a cycle lane, I was cut up by a driver who should not have been in the lane at all, but was hoping to beat the congestion. I rapped on the back of his car as I passed, as if to say, 'shame on you'. But instead of driving on, he stopped, got out, and started arguing. He did not have a leg to stand on. But I had dared to touch his shiny new vehicle, and had to be punished for my cheek.