I bought my first car when I was 17. University years aside, I was a car owner from then until four days before I left the UK. Exchanging my last car for cash was an unwelcome experience but I arrived in Shenzhen with plans to get a Chinese driving licence – even if, as I’d heard, it meant paying a native to take the test on my behalf. I even looked forward to buying something interesting with four wheels. My only concern was whether I’d be able to find a reliable English language satnav system.
But the desire to drive died during my first few days here. Watching the way the Chinese drive from the passenger seat in taxis, I decided that the mobility benefits of driving myself couldn’t match the basic aspiration to protect life and limb. Driving in China is not for the faint hearted and falls somewhere between an amateur track day at the Nurburgring and the chariot race in Ben Hur.
I now have a driver who takes me to and from work. The days when we don’t come close to adding to the road traffic accident statistics are few and far between. I’ve been involved in two (admittedly minor) ‘altercations’ in nine months. Once was when a cyclist failed to stop until he was forced to by the bumper of Mr Wu’s Honda. But the heart-stopping moments are frequent. Its not just driving skills. Road works continue whilst drivers drive and I even saw a car stranded on a main road, the front wheel embedded in a man hole whose cover had been removed for maintenance. People can often be seen sweeping the motorways with a broom during the morning rush hour.
I recently asked someone with more years experience of China if there’s a Chinese ‘rules of the road’ booklet. He suggested that if such a guide exists, someone must have borrowed it from the library and forgot to return it or is simply holding it hostage.
My father taught me to drive. He learned from his dad. In the western world, there is a culture of driving and tips and guidance is passed from one generation to the next. My early driving lessons covered two things: how to make the car behave in the way I intended it to; and the need to being alert to the dangers that could threaten my and other road users’ safety. With few exceptions, drivers follow the rules and most people get around without incident.
The challenge is that as recently as 20 years ago cars were a luxury beyond the means of everyday folk in an economy where people had more pressing demands on their disposable incomes. Those who did drive were mostly drivers for government departments or the CEOs of large, state–owned enterprises.
Ten years ago, China’s economic success began to trickle down to the millions cycling in the streets. Over the last decade car ownership grew exponentially amongst the country’s growing and affluent middle class. In the late 1970s, there were fewer than one million cars in China. By 2012, the number had risen to 120 million. Between 2010 and 2011, China overtook the US as the world’s largest car market with more cars sold than in any other country in the world.
But the bit that is missing is the generational passing on of experience. Despite an impressive road-building programme, traffic congestion is a daily occurrence in China’s large cities – a combination of the rising number of vehicles on the roads and shockingly bad driving.
The white lines that identify lanes on motorways appear invisible to Chinese drivers who randomly veer from one lane to the other on a whim, completely oblivious to others. Pedestrians, encouraged to cross the road by the little green man, are equally invisible. Rear view mirrors are redundant ornaments when drivers pull out into traffic, often while chatting or texting on their mobile phones. Aggressive car horn blowing is considered an acceptable alternative to paying attention or anticipation.
I’ve been without my own car now for nine months and it’s a strangely liberating experience in many ways. China’s roads have the highest death rates in the world: every day, 45,000 people are injured and 618 are killed. Being a car passenger carries little of the relaxation it does elsewhere. Driving oneself in China, I’ve decided, would require a supply of happy drugs on an intravenous drip.