There's been much ado about mainland drivers entering Hong Kong, a lot of it based on assuming they are worse than Hong Kong drivers or at least unable to adjust to rules of the road here.
It's all very ironic. In several countries, 'Asian drivers' are often singled out by other residents as 'the worst' in their locality. What is essentially a racist canard is accepted by much of the population, based on anecdotal evidence, such as seeing slow, uncertain driving by people with Asian features. That means Hong Kong people who drive in those countries are automatically classed among the worst drivers.
As it happens, there's evidence that overturns this popular assumption. US government reports show that the rate of age-adjusted deaths in traffic accidents was lowest for 'Asian-Pacific Islander Americans'. For male drivers, who account for the bulk of traffic fatalities - so much for the canard about bad women drivers as well - the rate for this ethnic group was less than 60per cent of the rate for 'Caucasian-Americans'.
A 2011 study of 4.2million drivers was carried out in Canada's Ontario province. There, 15per cent of new immigrants are from China and many more are from other parts of Asia. It found new immigrants were 45per cent less likely to be in 'serious motor vehicle crashes', compared with long-term residents. The University of Toronto scholar who conducted the study guessed that immigrants drive slower.
In Australia, a study of 20,000 New South Wales drivers found that young Asian-born drivers had half the risk of being involved in a traffic accident compared with their Australian-born peers. The University of Sydney scholar heading the research team said Asian-born drivers were least likely to take risks and that the longer immigrants live in Australia, the more likely they are to adopt the riskier behaviour of the native-born.
A statistical study of the rate of traffic deaths in 2007 in the world as a whole included 11 East and Southeast Asian countries. Seven, including China, had below-average rates. The study's author commented: 'The Japanese and Singaporeans are great. China's figure is even more impressive considering how new driving is to many Chinese compared to Europeans and Americans.'
So, contrary to the common assumption, 'Asians' are by no means the worst drivers. They may be thought that way because they stand out from majority populations and, thus, when they do something wrong while driving, it is remembered.
Drivers new to an area may be more likely to drive safely than those who are so familiar with it that they think they can drive after drinking, or speed. Who's to say that won't be the case with mainland drivers in Hong Kong?
As it now stands, the common assumption that, in Hong Kong, those who drive left-hand-drive cars will act less safely than those who drive right-hand-drive cars doesn't seem borne out by statistics. Secretary for Transport and Housing Eva Cheng produced figures showing that, in the past five years, the accident rate here for mainland-registered vehicles was almost five times less than the rate for locally registered cars. Even if these figures need further adjustment, it's unlikely the accident rate for mainland-registered vehicles is worse than for local ones.
There may be non-driving safety reasons to oppose the increased circulation of mainland vehicles into Hong Kong; for example, pollution. But, then again, the vehicles that travel to the mainland as part of the scheme won't be directly polluting Hong Kong while they're away.
In any case, there's a good reason to lay off talk about mainlanders as worse drivers. Such talk may also amount to discrimination: some years back, a British tribunal ruled that Phoenix Television in London was guilty of just that, after Hong Kong-born colleagues subjected a mainland news programmer to months of slurs. Isn't there enough of that crazy talk going around already?
Barry Sautman is an associate professor in the Division of Social Science at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology