China's congested cities create a lot of driving frustration, anger and danger
Recent road rage incidents have gone viral and prompted an official response
On the sprawling ground of Beijing Gongjiao Driving School, hundreds of white Volkswagen sedans crawled at a snail’s pace as students behind the wheels practiced starting, turning and parking their cars one recent afternoon.
“When students become impatient because of the long queue, I tell them to consider this a preview of Beijing’s traffic jams,” said Geng Guizhi, a veteran instructor at the school, where as many as 10,000 people sign up in a single month.
“I tell them, you have to remain calm and patient.”
That message is more relevant and important than ever, as roads in major Chinese cities become increasingly congested, creating a lot of frustration and anger – as well as grave danger – on the streets.
Thanks to continued rapid economic growth, government statistics show a 20% jump in private car ownership in 2014 – to 105 million cars nationwide.
The World Health Organization has estimated that more than 200,000 people die on the roads of China every year.
From the beginning of 2012 to the end of April this year, police linked 104 million traffic violations to some form of road rage, ranging from forcibly changing lanes or overtaking other vehicles, to failing to yield.
The past few weeks, state media have reported several egregious examples of road rage across China.
In early May, a BMW car driven by a young woman collided with a bus in the eastern city of Xuzhou when she tried to change lane. During an ensuing argument, the woman asked two male friends to assault the bus driver – and then verbally abused traffic policemen upon their arrival.
During the same week, a Mercedes-Benz car driver ran over and killed an elderly man in the southwestern city of Kunming, after the driver tried to cut in line at a toll booth and got into an argument with the victim’s family.
One of the most disturbing incidents was caught on camera on May 3, as a high-speed chase between two cars in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu only ended when the male driver forced the female driver ahead of him to stop under an elevated highway.
What happened next shocked and outraged the nation: He dragged her out of the car, threw her to the ground and viciously beat her – showing no mercy even when she tried to escape.
Not so fast..
Public opinion shifted, however, when dashcam footage from the male driver’s car emerged. That video, taken before the incident, showed the female driver cutting in front of him at the last second to take a nearly missed highway exit.
Many of the woman’s sympathizers online turned against her, stirring a national debate on drivers behaving badly and road rage – with thousands of comments calling reckless driving as appalling as wanton violence.
The female driver, who suffered concussion and fractures, has since apologized in an open letter, while the male driver remains behind bars pending a police investigation.
“No matter what she did, he should have never resorted to violence,” said Liang Di, 28, an office worker in Beijing taking her first driving lesson at the Gongjiao School.
“But I also feel the woman driver wasn’t blameless – everything has two sides.”
Law of the jungle
Under the watchful eyes of her instructor, Liang meticulously practiced the steps of starting a manual-shift car.
Like the nearly 28 million people who received a new driver’s license last year, she also had to sit through a class on how to become a “safe and civilized driver.”
The class and a mandatory test on the subject are all part of the government’s effort to nip the problems of bad drivers and road rage in the bud, as the authorities tighten traffic rules and increase penalties for violators.
“Offensive driving caused by road rage is a severe violation of law that disrupts traffic order and endangers safety,” said the Ministry of Public Security in a statement after the Chengdu incident. “Drivers should consciously overcome their road rage.”
Traffic police departments in cities like Beijing even produce nightly television shows that air on local channels, highlighting the potentially deadly consequences of road rage through footage of horrific accidents.
Just outside the orderly “streets” of the Beijing driving school one recent evening, the authorities’ message appeared to have fallen on deaf ears in the real world as motorists, cyclists and pedestrians fought for space, amid the constant sound of honking and braking.
For now, the law of the jungle – anything goes – still seems to rule the streets of China, with millions of new cars and news drivers hitting the road every year that may add to the chaos, anger and danger.