Disaster

Families eschew public transport for private cars

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 March, 2012, 12:00am

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As a leader of a group representing hundreds of cross-border drivers, Yang Kun knows first hand that there is a demand for a quick and affordable border-crossing system for cars.

Mainlanders with business in Hong Kong and those whose children are studying in the city or abroad are particularly keen on such a service and easily find ways around the current rules.

'Every time around the long school holidays, we see a big increase in the hiring of private vans with a cross-border licence,' said Yang, deputy general manager of Shenzhen-based B & B Motor. 'Often, families want to take their children for weekend shopping in Hong Kong before seeing them off at the airport.'

It is illegal for cross-border vehicles to carry passengers for money, but that's what some owners of the 26,000 qualified vehicles are doing.

Demand can only grow as the Hong Kong government plans more universities, hospitals and international schools in the New Territories and border area, many of them aimed at the mainland's growing middle-class population as clientele.

These wealthy people - many of whom own a car - won't want to take trains or coaches requiring several changes to reach their destinations.

In the light of surging demand, even if Hong Kong lawmakers veto the scheme for allowing mainland drivers into the city, Guangdong authorities are likely to find a way around it.

'Obtaining a cross-border licence seems to have become easier for mainland drivers lately,' Yang said. 'Mainland police used to approve a dozen applications each month. Now that number could be 30 to 40.'

Fears of a rise in road accidents accompanying an influx of mainland drivers seem partly justified by statistics, although mainland roads are becoming less lethal.

In 2003, roads in mainland China had a reputation for being among the world's most dangerous. A World Health Organisation study released that year estimated that up to 250,000 people were killed in traffic accidents in China a year - nearly 700 fatalities a day, or a fifth of the world's total traffic deaths.

But, in 2008, the Ministry of Public Security said the annual death toll for the year was 73,484.

Yang said drivers allowed into Hong Kong in future were likely to be highly qualified people who would tend to alter their driving habits after crossing the border. 'You naturally follow rules in an environment where everyone else does,' he said, adding: 'You don't see us bringing a lot of accidents to Hong Kong.'

Zheng Tianxiang, a professor of transport at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said such concerns were valid on both sides of the border.

'When the border first opened to Hong Kong drivers, they too were unfamiliar with our traffic system and they also caused their share of accidents. I admit that some mainlanders are poor drivers, but these could be screened out in the application process. To be fair, though, not all Hong Kong drivers are angels either.'

A case in point was a hit-and-run accident in Shenzhen in 2010, in which a three-month-old boy was killed and his mother seriously injured by a Hongkonger who fled the scene, dragging the baby's stroller beneath his truck. The driver, Leung Koon-biu, received a suspended death sentence in the Shenzhen Intermediate People's Court.