A licence to kill or be killed on mainland roads

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 July, 2009, 12:00am

Almost anyone who challenges authority on the mainland at the moment is guaranteed the approval of netizens. So it was no surprise that Yang Zhiguo became an overnight internet star earlier this month, after he was filmed hurling bricks at cars that were jumping a red light near his home in Lanzhou, Gansu province .

The 74-year-old retired teacher explained that he was bombarding the cars because their drivers refused to abide by traffic laws.

Eighty per cent of the 400,000 netizens surveyed on sina.com supported Mr Yang's actions. More unusually, though, his unconventional approach to traffic policing was applauded by large sections of the mainland media. Their sympathetic reporting of the incident reflects the growing anger at the widespread flouting of traffic laws, as well as the failure of authorities to enforce them.

Two recent cases in particular have sparked a debate about why the mainland's roads are the most lethal in the world. In May, a 20-year-old boy racer killed a pedestrian in Hangzhou , while driving at double the speed limit.

Last month, in Nanjing , a drunk driver ploughed into pedestrians and parked cars. He killed five people, including a pregnant woman and her husband.

Nothing illustrates the ineffectiveness of the mainland's traffic laws, and the way many drivers regard them as mere formalities, more than the fact that the Nanjing driver had racked up an amazing 80 traffic violations in the three years he had possessed a driving licence. The Hangzhou speedster received a three-year prison sentence earlier this week; justice of sorts even if it didn't satisfy his victim's family.

Even before car ownership became an obsession for the middle class, China's roads were dangerous. The mainland has led the world in traffic deaths since 1996, despite having just 3 per cent of the planet's cars. Last year, officially almost 75,000 people died on the roads. The vast majority of them were pedestrians, but overall fatalities were 10 per cent fewer than in 2007. That sounds impressive, until you consider that the World Health Organisation estimated that the actual number of traffic deaths on the mainland in 2007 was more than 220,000.

Those figures make car accidents the leading cause of death for the 15-44 age group. That should be the prompt for decisive government action. Beijing, though, seems more concerned with keeping the price of petrol low, so that even more people can afford to run a car.

There are already 20 million privately owned cars on the mainland's roads, a number rising by 28 per cent a year. But, for most people who don't have the means to buy a car, the boom in car ownership simply increases their chances of dying.

The police, meanwhile, seem to be doing their best to keep unsafe drivers on the roads. In Chongqing , in March, police were handing out chillies to drivers to keep them awake and so prevent accidents. But people who are too tired to drive shouldn't be on the road in the first place, and wouldn't be if they knew they risked a heavy fine, or losing their licences.

No wonder, then, that people like Mr Yang have resorted to taking the law into their own hands. Mr Yang had already petitioned the local government in Lanzhou to install traffic lights at the junction where he was throwing bricks, after an elderly woman was knocked down and killed last year. It is easy to imagine his frustration when drivers chose to ignore those lights.

When the public resort to stoning cars, it's clearly time for the authorities to act. They could start by enforcing the laws that are already in place, as well as tightening up the absurd driving test that sees people allowed on the roads after taking a mostly written exam. If they don't, there might not be enough people to purchase cars in the future; they'll all have died in road accidents.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist