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Behind the wheel, civilized becomes barbaric

Updated: 2011-04-06 17:23

By Huang Xiangyang (chinadaily.com.cn)

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Each day on my way to work I am amused by the street-side cardboard poster carrying the awkward-sounding English slogan: "Civilized Chaoyang, Magnificent with Me". For I could barely perceive any sign of a civilized society - not only in the immense district, but in Beijing at large - as far as road traffic is concerned.

On this land of wonders, green light does not guarantee a safe passage through the zebra crossing for pedestrians. Under the world's most bizarre traffic rules, vehicles are allowed to drive through the zebra crossing to turn right at any time, even when pedestrians are passing. I have to thank God and marvel at the miracle that I am still alive after years of crossing these streets, sometimes escaping by a hair's breadth from right-swerving vehicles running toward me at breakneck speed.

But this state of survival brings me little comfort. For I have been haunted by the cacophony of random honking that seems inescapably everywhere. When cars are reduced to a snail's pace in a traffic jam, they honk. When they race against each other on an expansively wide street, they honk. When they nearly knock down people in bicycle lanes, they honk. Sometimes a driver honks the horn for no obvious reason at all - as if he just wants to show off his wealth of owning a posh BMW or Mercedes to his pitiful and less fortunate countrymen who still have to rely on two legs to move around.

But there is something even worse. Sometimes the experience on the road can turn from irritating to deadly. More than 100,000 people die on roads in China each year, roughly the same amount as the total death toll in the Iraq war. A large portion of road accidents are caused by drunk driving, which has prompted the authorities to launch a nationwide crackdown on the practice. Violators are subject to punishments ranging from a fine of 500 yuan ($77), having their license revoked, to 15 days in police custody.

Yet these measures seem to have brought no deterrent to drivers brought up in a country famous for its drinking culture. As an avid viewer of a Beijing TV law program at noon, I have seen countless drunk drivers - men and women, young and old - caught red-faced, stuttering out funny excuses for their offense. Few have shown any sense of shame. Day-to-day exposure to these ugly scenes of failure of laws would make anyone - no matter how well-educated and cultured - to utter obscenities.

China's economy may have taken off, as reflected in the fast-rising figure of car owners. But it is still a long way to go for a car culture to take root in this country. As long as there is a lack of respect for life from those sitting behind the wheel, as long as the law fails to free the general public from the fear of being run over by speedy vehicles on the street, this society remains barbarian, no matter how "civilized" it aspires to be.


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