Mainland China's roads have a well-deserved reputation for being among the most dangerous in the world. Making them safer is obviously of direct interest to Hong Kong, as we cannot avoid them when visiting and the inevitable easing of border controls will increase the number of out-of-town drivers on our streets. Tough penalties meted out to high-profile drink-drivers in recent weeks under new rules are therefore a welcome departure from past lax practices. But a few court cases and promised greater efforts to clamp down on one particular facet of the problem is not going to make a significant change; that will only come from top-to-bottom reform.
The scale of the problem is immense. Officially, the annual death toll from traffic accidents is more than 100,000, among the highest-per-kilometre rate globally. It is hardly surprising that the figure is so high: even a casual encounter with roads shows that many drivers are selfish and undisciplined. They ignore traffic signs and signals, drive too fast, too slow, on the wrong side, out of designated lanes and while using a mobile phone. Mix in unroadworthy vehicles and drivers who drink too much alcohol and the combination is dangerous, sometimes deadly.
Many should not have been allowed on the roads in the first place. Potential drivers have to do a course and then sit a test to get a licence, but the schools and examiners generally have low standards. With the nation undergoing one of the biggest urbanisation movements in history, there is also the problem of people from rural areas where there are few red lights, stop signs, road lanes and traffic police driving in cities in unfamiliar conditions. Then throw in the hundreds of thousands of new drivers each month.
As if all that was not enough, enforcement is poor in most places and the flawed judicial system allows people of influence and wealth to avoid penalties for breaking rules. Thankfully, there is evidence of a change of attitude with the drink-driving law that took effect last month. With the number of fatalities from accidents involving alcohol sharply rising, the National People's Congress last August amended the Road Traffic Safety Law to make the offence a crime. Previously offenders were detained for up to 15 days; now they face one to six months in jail, a fine and suspension of their licence.
Already the right message has been sent, with Gao Xiaosong, a judge for the popular television show China's Got Talent, being given the maximum sentence. A man was jailed for life for killing two people in Beijing. But being tough is only one way of making roads safer. There also has to be sturdy enforcement, sustained public campaigns and education. Until such a system is in place, the mainland's - and potentially, Hong Kong's - roads will be unnecessarily dangerous.