Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Great Drive Forward

To the uninitiated, in fact to anyone at all, there seems to be only one rule for driving in China:
Rule You can all just do what you want.
This rampantly developing country has gone driving mad. And with so many new motorists has come some pretty mad driving. It drives you mad. As one observer put it: “The Chinese people fill me with inspiration and hope … until I see them at an intersection.”
Traffic lights at times perform not so much as a guiding force but a hopeful suggestion. “A  lane” seems to be defined as “anywhere you see a gap”. Zebra crossings are clearly there not to help those on foot but for aesthetic reasons.
There’s something like a million new cars on the road in Beijing every day, or hour or something, and in them are as many new drivers usually fitting two descriptions. They’re either confident, in a way that Ayrton Senna was confident, or so infuriatingly tentative that you’d swear your gran and a million of her friends were out to do their shopping.
But despite what it looks like, there are rules - lots of them - as anyone who has sat their exam for their Chinese driver’s licence can attest. Foreigners must acquire a local licence. Recently, it happened to me.

As with most things here, it was like a hundred-year-old curate’s egg - full of hard bits, difficult to digest, and easy bits. Undoubtedly the easiest part was the medical. Here, I apparently had to prove that I could, without assistance, stand in a room, lift one sheet of A4 paper, and hand it to a man to stamp it. My companion at least had to discern the number six on a multi-colored square. The tester obviously thought my eyes looked alright. Well, I wasn’t holding a white stick.
Cars at a standstill on Beijing's Third Ring Road
during a major peak-hour traffic jam.
But then came the book. It has all the questions and answers you will ever need to drive in China and, alas, many many others. There’s 1000 of them, and you’d better know them all. For 100 are randomly picked for the test, you need 90 per cent, and it’s not as straightforward as you’d think.
There is some dabbling in the bleeding obvious, probably not helped by English translation:
True or false? A motorized vehicle is not allowed to carry more passengers than it is permitted. Apparently this is true.
To drive in China you should of course need to know this: Gun powder, explosives and detonating powder are what? (Correct answer: Explosives. As sure as eggs are eggs, explosives are explosives).
But then, to be able to take to the road in your average sedan you might also need to know this: Which of the following are a dangerous inflammable solid material? A. Matches. B. Fireworks. C. Calcium carbide. D. Explosives. To my horror the only correct answer was matches. As far as we Beijing drivers are concerned, then, fireworks and explosives are not dangerous, inflammable or solid. So let’s load them up! For that matter, nor is calcium carbide, whatever it may be.
Traffic gets back to normal after the jam is cleared.
At least one infamous question has now been removed. Aspiring drivers used to be asked what they would do if they came across an accident scene and found another person sitting there with his intestines hanging out. (The answer, of course, was to cup them in some sort of container and strap it to the body.)
But try this current true or false: “When a head-on collision is unavoidable, the driver should free the steering wheel, raise the legs and lie sideward on the right seat at the moment of the head-on collision. This can ensure his body is not stuck by the steering wheel.” The answer is true.
So, you’re doing 110kmph. An approaching car comes close enough to erase any doubt that you’re going to run smack into it. “Hang on,” you might muse, “I’m going to be in a head-on collision here. I’ll just get these legs up and lie down over there.” (It may now be important to point out cars here are left-hand drive. Or maybe it isn’t).
When a vehicle rolls continuously into a deep ditch, the driver is meant to “swiftly hide his body to the lower space in front of his seat, hold the steering column to stabilize his body so that his body will not roll and get hurt.” Presumably this driver is very nimble. And a dwarf.
But if you’re really quick, when a driver “senses” he is about to be thrown out of his rolling vehicle, he should “violently straighten both his legs to increase the force of being thrown out, and jump out of the vehicle”. Another question makes clear the driver should not jump in the same direction the car is rolling, assuming he has the time to choose on what has just become a very busy day.
These three action plans also assume one glaring thing – the driver is not wearing a seatbelt. At least this is one thing you can assume with some confidence in China. One question you could easily imagine being on the test would be:
Q: Seatbelts are: A) A kind of strap-on chair. B) Those dangly things hanging near the people in a car. C) A damned nuisance.
It’s fair to say they’re not used a lot here, as any toddler enjoying a stroll around the back seat of a speeding vehicle could tell you.
The Chinese at an intersection ... selflessness
for the greater good.
The test questions also have handy tips on splinting a fractured leg, and the message that if a driver has a serious burns victim on his hands he should not, repeat not, cover him with sandy soil. Handily for China, the test includes the laws that one is not allowed to spit or throw rubbish out a car window. Presumably they will start to be observed around the same time pedestrians start looking before crossing the road.
Drivers are responsible any time a pedestrian is hit. Just as most drivers cut in assuming cars behind will see them, so too pedestrians wander onto roads without a care in the world. They assume drivers will avoid them because hitting a pedestrian can be a lot of trouble. So can living in wheelchair, mind you, but each to their own.
Another test scenario is that you’re in a “fire disaster”. The correct course of action is that you should escape only after you “turn off the ignition switch, cut off the the power switch and the blind, and manage to turn off the fuel tank switch.” Blimey. By the time you’ve worked out what and where all these switches are, and realised you don’t have any blinds in your car, perhaps it’s also time to reassess your chances of escape.
There was also this doozy, for which the answer was true: “When vehicles cross each other at night, the driver may continuously change lights to remind the vehicle coming in the opposite direction and at the same time should reduce speed and go forward or stop on the right side.” In other words, you can all just do what you want, including what in my country is a practice known as “high beaming the bastard”.
There are also diagram questions showing traffic cops executing a vast array of driving instructions, or possibly tai-chi manoeuvres. Perhaps it’s “turn left”. Perhaps it’s “crouching mantis”, performed for the cop’s peace of mind in light of all these drivers ignoring him.
Of course I passed with flying colors, 98 per cent. OK, it was the second time round. I’d got a humiliating 78 on the first go. But I did meet one westerner who sat the test five times and gave up. Another was on his 10th go when I met him, and may still be plugging away to this day.
You can get a list of your mistakes, but most don’t bother. Hence, millions of people could get 99 out of 100 and gain their licence blissfully unaware that seat belts are in fact supposed to be worn.
Maybe that’s what happened.


  1. This is one of the truest perspectives on driving in China that I've ever read.... hilarious

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