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China: 5-year plan

Day Eleven: China’s traffic

Kai Ryssdal Jun 8, 2011

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.

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