Hoping to see the light of traffic rules

Updated: 2013-01-04 03:31

By Yang Wanli, Jiang Xueqing and Hu Yongqi (China Daily)

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Hoping to see the light of traffic rules
Cars brake on the yellow light at a Beijing intersection on Thursday. A new traffic regulation that aims to stop drivers from running yellow lights has caused an outcry, with many Internet users saying it will lead to more accidents. [Zou Hong / China Daily]

Drivers must treat yellow as the new red, Yang Wanli, Jiang Xueqing and Hu Yongqi report in Beijing.

Speed up or slow down? That was the question Wang Xueliang pondered as he approached the traffic lights.

The 45-year-old driver hesitated for a few seconds before stepping on the brakes and stopping his car at an intersection on Beijing's Chang'an Avenue, even though the traffic light was still green.

The light turned yellow a split second later.

For many drivers, passing through traffic intersections has become a guessing game since New Year's Day.

From Jan 1, new traffic regulations mean all drivers in China that run a yellow light will have six points deducted from the 12 allocated to their license.

Drivers who forfeit 12 points over a calendar year will have to attend training courses and take exams organized by the local traffic management bureau.

The rule was branded "China's harshest traffic rule" by many online observers.

Each violation is punished according to a sliding scale of point deduction, relative to the severity of the offense. Drivers who run yellow lights will receive the same six-point penalty as those who run red lights.

The revised rule also enacts strict punishments for speeding, covering up the license plate, making phone calls while driving, and drunken driving. The penalty for covering up a license plate is 12 points. In addition, an additional 14 violations have been added to the books, raising the number of possible violations to 52 from the previous 38.

Fewer infringements

"On the day the revised rules came into force, drivers followed the rules and commonly seen violations, such as ignoring traffic lights and deliberately covering up license plates, were seen less frequently," according to a report by Xinhua News Agency, quoting the Ministry of Public Security.

The report said the number of accidents decreased substantially on Tuesday in five major cities — Beijing, Tianjin, Nanjing, Hangzhou and Jinan — from the previous day. Moreover, no severe accidents, such as those caused by drivers ignoring traffic signals, were reported.

Although the ministry said on Wednesday that some major cities reported a sharp decrease in urban traffic violations, the new regulation remains controversial because drivers find it difficult to predict yellow lights and stop their cars in good time.

"I don't understand what the yellow light is for, if we have to stop as soon as we see it. All we need is a green light that's either on or off," said Wang.

"Now, I have to slow down when the light is still green. The new regulations make drivers pass through easily blocked intersections even more slowly, increasing the danger of rear-end collisions and prompting more insurance claims."

Some drivers said the Ministry of Public Security has been too hasty in concluding that running a yellow light is a traffic violation, because drivers are accustomed to passing through the yellow light and it takes a few seconds for them to hit the brakes and stop their cars.

Wu Daming, a lecturer at East China University of Political Science and Law, described the new traffic regulation as "simple and crude" on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter.

"The penalty for the 'yellow light' is a trap. At many crossroads, there are no countdown clocks for the green lights, which can turn yellow in a second. That leaves no time for drivers to stop," he said. "If vehicles should stop, rather than just slow down, when the yellow light is on, what is the function of the red light?"

No clear statement

Chen Jinxue, a lawyer in Guangdong province, said the yellow light should just be a reminder for drivers to slow down and prepare to stop, rather than a signal to stop the car immediately. "It's not the matter of whether the punishment is too severe or not, but whether drivers should be punished," he said.

Chapter four of the Law of the People's Republic of China on Road Traffic Safety, adopted in December 2007, stipulates the operation of traffic lights for motorized and non-motorized vehicles. A green light mean vehicles are allowed to proceed, but vehicles in the act of turning must not interfere with the normal traffic flow or pedestrians crossing the road. A yellow light means vehicles that have already passed the stop line may continue on their way. And a red light means all vehicles must stop.

"The law doesn't make a clear statement about whether drivers who haven't passed the stop line and continue while the yellow light is showing should be punished or not," said Chen. "In that case, drivers who have been punished can apply for an administrative review or appeal because there is an important principle whereby a law that doesn't specifically prohibit an action cannot result in prosecution if that action is undertaken."

He said that all three lights should have distinct roles. "If crossing the stop line when the yellow light is on results in punishment, then there is no difference in function between red and yellow lights, which makes the law difficult to apply."

Chen admitted that he had run yellow lights several times in Guangzhou, but believed the new regulations could result in a greater number of accidents.

Before a green light changes to yellow, pedestrians and cars traveling in the opposite direction are stationery but ready to move. "It takes time for them to accelerate, so they have more time to deal with the traffic conditions. But when drivers traveling at high speed attempt to slow down, the timeframe is limited and it's easier to cause rear-end crashes," said Chen.

Coordinating traffic flow

"Before the new regulation came into force, the authorities should have installed flashing green lights or countdown timers at every intersection to help drivers prepare to stop," said Wang Shufeng, associate professor of physics at Peking University, who has been driving for more than 10 years. "The heart of the matter is giving people enough time to respond to the signal changes,"

He said that enacting regulations before making the necessary preparations, such as putting the right hardware in place, is inappropriate.

"The core of the traffic regulations is not obedience to the law, but coordinating people's relations on the road, improving the traffic capacity and ensuring safety," he said.

However, not all drivers are against the new regulations. Some showed their support by pointing out that it's dangerous to pass through the yellow light and people should slow down, rather than accelerate, if they think the traffic lights are about to change.

"When I was a rookie driver, I always slowed down and halted when the yellow light was showing. For me, safety was paramount. But some drivers behind me would sound their horns to make me move on, and that was really annoying," said Li Yufang, of Hefei, the capital of Anhui province. "Rookie drivers may make mistakes and cause accidents if they are nervous, so maybe this regulation will prevent people from driving too quickly."

Contact the reporters at yangwanli@chinadaily.com.cn, jiangxueqing@chinadaily.com.cn and huyongqi@chinadaily.com.cn