On road safety in China and some worrying statistics
Seat belts optional
I’m writing this on my way to Hangzhou from three days spent on Putuoshan. I’m on a long distance bus, the outside temperature display is reading 37°C, and I have my seat belt on. Ordinarily, this last point wouldn’t warrant much of a mention. But in a country in which wearing a seat belt is seen as more of an option than a necessity, the fact that I have a seat belt to wear is itself something of a novelty.
On the taxi ride to the bus station I wasn’t so fortunate. It still baffles me that in the majority of taxi rides you take in China, you’ll be lucky if you’ve got anything more than a metal grille between you and the driver to keep you from going through the windscreen if you crash. There may be a seat belt, but more often than not the buckles will have been inexplicably removed. More likely, however, is that there will be no seat belt at all, leaving you at the mercy of the vehicle handling skills, or lack of, of your own driver and those around you.
It’s become something of a running joke to cite China’s health and safety standards as not exactly being triple-A stringent. I’ve done it myself in my Ten More Things China Wouldn’t Be China Without post. But when you think that China tops the table for both the total road related deaths and the rate of those deaths, the joke begins to get a little less amusing.
100,000 road deaths a year
With around 100,000 confirmed deaths each year, the death rate per 10,000 vehicles in China is around eight times higher than in America, even though the overall number of vehicles on China’s roads is many times smaller than in the West. Around 80% of those deaths are said to be a result of driver negligence, and according to public health officials, traffic accidents have become the leading cause of death for people in China under the age of 45. Not very funny at all.
Indeed, the joke is particularly less hilarious when you are sitting in a bus station watching real-life, onboard footage of Chinese bus crashes playing on the several TVs dotted around the waiting room. Nobody seemed to be paying much attention to the gruesome images flashing away on the screens above, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them. For one thing, I’d never seen a video played in a public place that showed actual recognisable people, filmed by the onboard CCTV cameras, being tossed around buses and thrown out of windows as they crashed. Secondly, I was about to get on a bus exactly like the ones that were repeatedly crashing in front of me.
As far as public service videos go, it made pretty grim viewing. But I guess that’s exactly the point. If people still have trouble grasping the fact that wearing a seat belt in a moving vehicle may be beneficial in the event of a crash, showing real-life video of the consequences of not wearing one may go some way to reinforcing the message that it’s not particularly good for your health.
Not that the warnings seem to have been headed on this bus. Looking around, I still seem to be the only one that takes still being alive at the end of a journey as something to be thankful for. And that’s even after the driver made a point of going through the coach making telling people to buckle up. But at least drivers are now obliged to do so, no matter how many people ignore the advice or complain that it just isn’t comfortable.
But still, you manage to block it out, to tell yourself that these things only happen to other people and that somehow you’ll arrive in one piece. Yet with the direct economic losses estimated to be more than 3.3 billion Yuan a year, the Chinese government has, it seems, begun to take the problem a little more seriously. There have been moves by the Chinese Transportation and Communications Ministry to regulate the bus industry, as well as projects being initiated in several cities aimed at curbing drink driving and other traffic offences. Furthermore, according to China Daily, due a number of recent high-profile accidents, the manufacture of sleeper buses was halted in March 2012 with the aim of reducing their numbers significantly over the next five to ten years.
No framework for enforcement
But as Fei Deng of the World Bank’s sustainable development department for East Asia notes in the Wall Street Journal, the rapid growth in the number of vehicles on China’s roads together with the relative lack of regulatory framework, poor enforcement of traffic laws, as well as a lack of public awareness about road safety issues, are just some of the obstacles standing in the way of progress. “The government needs to pay more attention to safety assurance while enhancing infrastructure,” she said. “We need to change the behaviour of the public on the issue of the use of roads.”
With tens of thousands of people dying needlessly each year, road travel in China still feels like something you indulge in only when all other options have been exhausted. Public service videos and the recent vigilance of coach drivers is a start. But with stories of bus crashes, coach fires and road accidents showing no sign of going away, much more needs to be done to ensure that the current statistics start heading in the right direction instead of headlong in the wrong one. In the meantime, I’ll still be taking an aisle seat as close to the emergency exit as I can. And after reading the articles I’ve just quoted from above, hopefully never in my life taking a sleeper bus again.
VIDEO: I couldn’t find the exact video I watched in the bus station online, but a portion of the following video was featured, and it was perhaps the most shocking moment of the lot. It comes from the onboard CCTV cameras of a bus that had missed its turning on a motorway near Jinhua, Zhejiang Province on the morning of August 2nd 2013, and had begun to reverse back down the carriageway. Unsurprisingly, the bus was hit from behind by a truck, and while the force of the impact threw ten people, including the driver, from the bus, the only person that died was the truck driver. It seems none of those onboard were wearing seat belts. Buckle up!