These are not easy questions to answer. The stats are difficult to find because the country and its bureaucracy is vast and dispersed; and because after collecting the data in painful detail, the authorities just publish whatever numbers they want you to see — even if that means making them up. And they’re difficult to find because the primary sources are written not only in a different language, but in a whole different alphabet; and most importantly of all, they’re difficult to find because there’s a bug in the new Google results page that prevents it loading beyond the first page in FireFox on Ubuntu. (I take my research seriously, guys!)
Lots of sources say that a quarter of a million people die in RTAs in China every year, attributing it vaguely to the World Health Organisation. WolframAlpha also stated this number, attributing it only to “2002”. So, eight years ago — when the boom in China’s car dependency was only just beginning — there were 250,000 road deaths in China, accounting for 19.2 deaths per 100k. By comparison, the UK had just 3,864 road deaths — but, due to the difference in demographics, had a statistically indistinguishable 19.1 deaths per 100k.
The interesting thing to note, though, is that while China had more than an order of magnitude more people than the UK, it had only 3.5 million cars, compared to the UK’s 28.5 million cars.* So while in the UK there were about 135 road deaths per million cars; in China there were a whopping 71,400. In 2002 there were five hundred times as many fatalities per-car in China compared to the UK. As Melinda Liu puts it, China’s 1.3 billion people own 2 percent of the world’s vehicles but account for 15 percent of global traffic deaths.
There are many hypotheses for why China’s roads are so anarchic and dangerous. In reality, most of them are probably parts of the explanation, to varying extents. One obvious reason is that most drivers in Beijing are new to the whole driving thing. This is a city where car ownership is growing at 10% per year and half of all drivers received their license within the past 5 years. Everyone is a new driver, and there’s nobody with experience to set an example.
Amateur sociologists propose all sorts of other reasons, focusing on the context of China as a non-democratic nation — why in an authoritarian regime is there this pocket of anarchy? In Tom Vanderbilt‘s Traffic, Beijing-based journalist Jonathan Landreth proposes that a car in traffic is the only place where the established societal hierarchy of the city breaks down, to be replaced with another where the little guy can achieve equality with the company director or city official: everybody is trying to assert themselves and create for themselves an elevated status. They’re overcompensating for something. Drivers overcompensating? It all seems a bit implausible.
Meanwhile, in Newsweek, Melinda Liu says:
“What makes driving in China especially hazardous is a combination of corrupt officials who can be bribed into dispensing licenses to unqualified drivers, aging or rickety vehicles, badly marked road construction, inexperienced drivers, and truckers on long hauls nodding off to sleep as they transport yet more goods to feed the country’s booming economy.”
And Liu Shinan of China Daily suggests that it is instead about history: “After the cultural revolution, which lasted for ten years, it was a chaotic society. People didn’t show any respect for the law, because Chairman Mao encouraged the people to revolt, to question authority.” In Traffic, Vanderbilt traces this anti-authoritarian streak even further back, to Confucian ideas of personal rights and indifference toward the public good. China has dangerous roads because Motorists don’t care for others. But does that alone explain it? Bai Ping suggests that it’s down to government officials setting a bad example by ignoring the law themselves:
As a matter of fact, China has very detailed traffic rules that are covered in computerized tests for license applicants. For example, motorists pay a fine of 200 yuan ($29.3) and lose two points if they tailgate or take a phone call while driving. But there is less of an incentive for obeying the law if people realize that those in power are not following the law. When stuck in a traffic jam, who doesn’t want to go follow an official who veers off to drive on the road shoulder or a bike lane?
The main reason, though, is the most obvious one of all. When the law is not enforced, people break it.
* All figures from Professor Google — these were thrown together in a lunch break, they are not serious scholarship or investigative journalism.