Why people drive the way they do

Updated: 2012-12-22 07:30

By Bai Ping (China Daily)

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Driving in Beijing can be a dangerous experience because traffic is often congested and, worse, infested with reckless drivers who tend to cut into lanes or jump red lights or speed on emergency lanes to get ahead of others.

Recently, lawlessness on the roads hit headlines when first-aid workers urged drivers to make way for ambulances after an injured woman died in one that got stuck in a traffic jam. The situation has become so alarming that authorities are mulling mounting surveillance cameras on ambulances to film drivers who refuse to budge.

This week, police launched a three-month crackdown on unruly drivers and perpetual traffic rule violators. All special units will employ chengguan, the feared urban administrators, who know every alley and road like the back of their hands.

But doubts remain on the effectiveness of such seasonal police action to instill civilized behavior in drivers if they fail to address the causes of people's low respect for the law, exacerbated by a lack of integrity in law enforcement.

For example, we know aggressive driving can be a learned response through observation or imitation of other drivers. According to survey results, 63 percent of traffic offenders attributed their offence to a tendency to follow others while the rest said they believed they would never be punished.

Bad examples abound on the road. If you drive, how many times have you encountered a tailgating black Audi or Volkswagen Passat with pitch dark windows - the typical official vehicle - that blares its horn or turns on a siren until you move and let it pass?

I've given way to cars with license plates wrapped with a piece of camouflage cloth, assuming they were on important government business. But while picking up my son after school in the recent past, I have been surprised to see that among the waiting cars at the gate there was often one with a similarly covered license plate.

Sometimes, we wonder why some cars can make an illegal turn or jump a red light on main thoroughfares while police pretend not to see. There is less of an incentive in obeying the law if people realize that those in power are not following it. When stuck in a traffic jam, who doesn't want to follow an official car that veers off to drive on the road shoulder or a bicycle lane? The rampant abuse of government car privileges has contributed to the traffic chaos as it has reduced people's respect for the law.

As a matter of fact, China has very detailed traffic rules that are covered in computerized tests for license applicants. For instance, drivers pay a fine of 200 yuan and lose two points if they tailgate. The fine will be the same but they'll lose six points for using emergency lanes in non-emergency times.

But many drivers have found ways to beat the system even after they are caught. Police officers usually allow offenders to transfer points to friends or family members as long as they pay the fine. This has spawned a prosperous business of engaging agents to buy and sell points. Unless one is involved in a major traffic accident, the demerit point system has virtually little deterrent effect.

There are two popular theories on traffic that can help us understand driving behavior. The first is related to GDP, which says countries with higher GDP will invest more in road safety and their drivers will go to greater lengths to avoid risks.

The second gauges a nation's driving behavior by its level of corruption.

The traffic crackdowns would treat symptoms, not the disease, if we ignore corruption that influences law enforcement and drivers' behaviors.

The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily. E-mail: dr.baiping@gmail.com

(China Daily 12/22/2012 page5)