Day Eleven: China's traffic

Navigating the roads in China.

A brief word, now, about traffic here -- by way of a short story. I've only been truly in fear of my life twice; completely, totally sure that my time had come. Once was in flight school, a blindfolded underwater escape from an upside down crashed helicopter (simulated). The other was in a taxi in Cairo at rush hour with a cabbie who had somehow decided my life wasn't worth living anymore. Or at least that's the way it felt from the back seat.

To that brief list I can now add: life on the roads in China. I think we're up to five near-death experiences so far -- 11 days or so into the trip. In cabs. On foot. In the path of swerving city buses -- take your pick. I've been trying to figure out why traffic's so much more hazardous to ones health now than it was even five years ago when Marketplace was here, never mind 15 years ago when I lived in Beijing.

Here's where I come down. First of all, there are just way way more cars in the big cities than there used to be. So many more that the biggest cities -- Shanghai and Beijing to name the traffic-plagued -- limit the number of cars that can be sold and add taxes and duties to the cars that do eventually hit the market. Still, rising wealth here means people with means can buy what they want. Often, that's cars.

Then, think about who's doing the driving. I don't have the exact numbers handy, but it's a safe bet that a good number of the people who're driving in China now weren't driving 10 years ago. Many probably got their licenses less than 5 years ago. And a chunk less than 3 years ago. So, imagine if roads back home were filled with 18 or 20 year olds for whom a turn signal or yielding the right of way was something they vaguely remembered from their driving test, but didn't think applied in real life.

There's also a certain amount of chaos innate to China that I think translates directly to the roads. It's hard to get by here. Life is just... difficult. So it's easy to think -- or so my logic goes -- that traffic laws are really only guidelines that it'd be nice if everybody followed. But if that's too hard, then just forget it and do what you have to do to get where you're going.

Finally, courtesy of our Shanghai bureau chief Rob Schmitz, a word of advice should you ever find yourself a pedestrian here in need of crossing the street. Whatever you do, don't look drivers in the eye. Once you do that, Rob says, you've lost. The risks of collision are on you. So keep 'em in your peripheral vision, watch where you're going, and never let 'em see you stare.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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1970-1972 I lived in Izmir, Turkey, where driving was totally engrossing. Even at 15mph, it felt like the track at Le Mans. When I visited again in 2001, I was totally amazed. They had new cars and had learned to drive well!! That will happen in China in time.

You should also mention how hard is to find a parking space in Chinese cities. Also, traffic laws may seem just for reference and no police is enforcing them, but with so many closed circuit cameras on the street, you will get ticketed. The thing is, you may not even know, you have to go to police’s website to check yourself (they are not going to tell you).

I was in China for a month in 2006 visiting the family of Shanghineese college friend of mine. His family is part of the new Chinese middle class and his father took us out in their new Buick to see downtown Shanghai. It was much worse than being in the car with an 18 year old driver. Either the gas or the break was being pushed at all times. He was very proud of his car and his City and it seemed to me that he tried showing off his beautiful city and his breaking ability when as we were coming around a corner on the elevated highway he slammed on the breaks. We came to a complete stop because he wanted me to take a picture of the city's skyline. I was yelling at him to go, but he wouldn't move till I had taken a picture that was not blurry. I liked nearly everything about China, but the feeling of imminent death every time you approached a vehicle is something I could do without.

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