A backseat driver has a front-row seat on car madness

Updated: 2011-10-13 11:12

By Peper Krasnopolsky (China Daily)

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A backseat driver has a front-row seat on car madness 

I have the best time in the car when I'm with my Chinese in-laws. I just sit back, close my eyes and smile. Like most Westerners, whatever I lack in Chinese language, guanxi (connections), cultural awareness and use of chopsticks, I compensate for with my driving skills.

It's so much fun to watch my father-in-law, a respectable Chinese civil servant in his late 50s, constantly getting lost and causing near accidents, while my mother-in-law, who has a license but has never driven a day in her life, keeps shouting instructions from the back seat.

There's usually one of his younger brothers in the car, who allegedly knows how to drive, but lacking a license, gives his advice in a lower voice.

A backseat driver has a front-row seat on car madness

The old man ignores not just them but also the cars honking at him. Like many Chinese drivers, he believes the motorway belongs to him, that he can go at his own pace and do U-turns wherever he pleases.

This, rather common, perception among Chinese motorists that each one of them is the most important participant on the road is one of the reasons driving in Beijing is rarely the best experience.

Have you ever seen a Beijing driver miss an exit? It never happens, for the simple reason that many will stop in the left lane of the highway and back up to the exit which was missed.

That's on a normal day. Things become downright bizarre when there is a wedding procession, especially when the guy with the video camera is involved. He honestly believes the ring road represents a crowd of extras in his masterpiece wedding video. He stops and goes as he pleases to get a better angle. Who cares about the cars behind skidding.

Although they wouldn't have to leave those skid marks if they had only used the brakes before they tried to use the horn to tell the wedding procession to get the hell out of the way.

The horn is the number one preferred pressure point of Beijing drivers.

In the United States I don't think I would have ever noticed my horn was broken until it was time for inspection. That's how boring driving can get.

The vast majority of drivers in the US are sickeningly polite. It gets to the point where four cars coming to an intersection from different directions get stuck while the drivers have a gesture dialogue of, "You go first. No, you go first. No, please, you go."

My Chinese friends argue that the reasons for obedient and non-aggressive driving in the West are the strict laws and their enforcement.

True, almost every young driver in the US learns the lesson in the first few years. It's just too expensive to drive like a jackass there. The fines are high, and repeated violations lead to an increase in insurance premiums, which are already high to begin with.

With time, we stop being in a constant hurry and start driving more cooperatively. In addition to fines, we have observed that is how people around us behave. In some sense we grow up, like any teenager who stops being a pain at a certain age.

Not in Beijing. The driving culture is different here, and people tend to do as they see being done. So, in addition to a number of aggressive drivers, there are a vast number of incompetent and aggressive drivers. The growing middle class has started buying cars.

If you learn to drive in your 30s, 40s, or even 50s it is unlikely you will take any advice seriously, just like my father-in-law.

There's just nobody around with better driving skills and higher authority to guide him, and I certainly wouldn't try any backseat driving with him.

So, on the occasions when I am forced to be in his car, I just sit back, close my eyes, and smile.