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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Traffic accidents in China

I may have implied in previous posts that the stereotype about Chinese people being terrible drivers might, in fact, have a fairly firm grounding in reality. It does. That isn't to say that all Chinese people are terrible drivers. My wife, for example, is an excellent driver as are many of our friends. It is incontrovertibly true, however, that the general level of driving ability here is well below what would be acceptable in any western country. But that is a post for another day.

Today I want to write about an inevitable consequence of the large number of unskilled drivers on the roads in China - traffic accidents.

I was driving home the other day after teaching a room full of hyperactive 5-year-old children all about the letter D when I encountered this:

A daily occurrence.

This is not unusual, I see three or four similar accidents a week here in Dongyang. It occurred to me though that there are a number of unique aspects to your typical Chinese car accident that might be of interest to western readers.

Who are you cheering for?

Traffic accidents in China are a spectator sport. This actually applies to any form of public conflict, but especially for traffic accidents. Of course in the west folks will slow down as they pass an accident, hoping to see something shocking but here they'll actually pull over, get out and wander over to have a closer look.

The people you can see on the other side of the cars are mostly construction workers from the building site on the other side of that blue and white wall. Some of them (the ones with umbrellas, mostly) are people who were passing by and stopped to watch.

Car accidents are like television for Chinese people who don't own televisions.

Whose fault is it?

This is a huge difference between China and western countries. In China, the police determine whose fault the accident is, how much the damages are worth, and who has to pay for it all. There is no functional way for either party to dispute the decision, there is no court, there is no judge. The police have the final word. Their decision is in no way related to who actually caused the accident or how much the damage will actually cost to fix, by the way.

In the accident above, for example, the driver of the grey sedan was obviously attempting to pull a U-turn from the right hand lane across a solid yellow line without even shoulder checking. The damage to the sedan was negligible while the damage to the pick-up truck was not negligible. Sorry, I couldn't get a good shot from the other side of the accident because of the studio audience onlookers. 

In Canada, this would clearly be the fault of the driver of the sedan as they were clearly in violation of a number of traffic laws and were the cause of the accident. In China (or at least in Dongyang) it is not so simple.

The driver of the sedan obviously has money and is from Dongyang while the driver of the truck is a poor less wealthy villager from near Dongyang. We know this because these green pick-up trucks are privately owned, are used by the local construction industry for manual labor/haulage jobs, and have the name of the owner's village stenciled on the doors.

In an accident between a car and a bike, or a car and a pedestrian, or a bike and a pedestrian the person with the most wheels is always at fault. Always. I'm not joking about this.

In an accident where the number of wheels is the same, the person who is at fault is usually the one who can make the least amount of trouble for the police officer. In this case that is the villager in the truck. He has less money, and being from out of town probably has fewer government contacts than the sedan driver. Poor bastard is probably going to have to pay for both his own repairs and the scratch in the sedan's paint.

Excuse me, have you got the time?

The other wrinkle in this is that it often takes the police hours to arrive at an accident. This is not because they are busy with their duties. Unless, of course, their duties involve telling bullshit stories to each other in the station while chain smoking cheap cigarettes, hanging out in tea houses and brothels, or sleeping. Generally they just don't want to bother going outside and dealing with stuff. This is especially true when it's raining. Or cold. Or too hot. Or... well, let's just say the cops here have redefined the word "lazy" and leave it at that.

To give you an idea of the kind of time frame I mean, I didn't have my camera with me on my way home from class. I saw the accident, went home, picked up my camera, went back to the accident and took pictures. Judging by the crowd the accident had happened about 15-20 minutes before I drove by and it took me 20-30 minutes to get home and back. The police pulled up just after I'd gotten back with my camera. Which brings us to...

Nobody move!

Neither car will move from their spot until after the police have arrived, taken pictures and rendered a judgement.

The position of these cars is the position they stopped in after the accident. If either driver moves their car so much as a millimeter after they come to a stop they will be charged with attempting to flee the accident and possibly with tampering with evidence. Both charges can carry jail time, and in China the police decide if you are guilty or not for most things.

The effects of this on general traffic flow cannot be overstated. This particular accident wasn't too bad, as there was room on either side for cars to get by

The white car in the foreground isn't driving past the accident. It is parked and the driver is checking out the damage. The cars behind it are trying to thread their way between the white car and the accident. Fun, yes?

but I have seen minor accidents with no damage to either vehicle where traffic was blocked in both directions for almost two hours. You can't even get mad at them for blocking traffic - they have no real choice about it.

So there you have it, the anatomy of a Chinese traffic accident. What do you think? How does this compare to the way they do things in your part of the world?

If you lived here, would you risk driving?


  1. This was very enlightening. I don't think I'd like drivng in China. Strange that they give the police so much power. This must cut back on lawyers, if there even are any. Good post.

    1. There actually are lawyers but, like the real estate, they all belong to the government. Their job is generally to legitimize whatever decision the powers that be are making with regards to the case at hand.

      It's even more strange that they give the police so much power given the average education level of the police here, but the function of the police is not to maintain the peace but to maintain the status quo.

  2. It is absurd that the police pass judgment on the accident depending on the number of wheels of the vehicles involved. I think that they should really change their system if that were true because it is very unjust especially if you are the one in the right but is unfortunate to not have the financial means or status.

    Guadalupe Puthoff

  3. The system is just unbelievable! It truly is unjust. I think the problem here is that people tolerate it and don’t do anything because they believe that they’d lose to the rich and powerful anyway. But if someone would just step up and really fight for his right, go against the system that they have, and open people’s eyes that they are being ruled over unfairly, there is a possibility of change.

    Fe Penley


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