On my first trip to China, my cab slammed into the side of a van. The second trip, I was hit while crossing a street – luckily no injuries. So I had plenty of personal interest when I was assigned to cover a forum on road safety in China.
Automobile accidents account for 3,000 deaths per day worldwide. As China gobbles up steel to produce automobiles, its contribution to this number is starting to look like its contribution to global warming: huge. Every five minutes in China a person dies of road traffic injuries.
|Reinhard Krause / Reuters|
|Cyclists cross a street in Beijing.|
Injuries and violence in China, grouped together in World Health Organization reports, now cause more deaths and disabilities than disease and nutrition combined. Traffic injuries account for 25 percent of injury-related deaths in China, surpassed only by suicide at 28 percent.
To shine light on the problem, the WHO this week organized a forum on road safety in China. The event brought together members of the seventeen agencies responsible for road safety, along with foreign experts for a series of lectures and discussion sessions.
Rampant road accidents
The conference room was filled with more than 120 people from China and abroad. Every 10 minutes, an attendant would appear with a bottle of hot water to fill our tea cups to the brim with green tea. During the break we were served Nescafe – a Chinese staple – and cookies.
The Chinese government estimates that 45 percent of road traffic deaths are due to poor driving. The majority of those deaths are pedestrians or bicyclists.
Official rules state that to obtain a driver's license in Beijing, the driver must attend 58 hours of practical instruction and a week of theory classes. In practice, according to a number of Chinese interviewed, often a small bribe will secure a license nicely. As with many other aspects of Chinese society, corruption is rife.
The World Bank estimates China road traffic fatalities increased 243 percent between 1975 and 1998. Predictions are fatalities will rise another 98 percent by 2020 unless preventative measures are taken.
Ray Shuey, a former assistant police commissioner of Victoria, Australia, spoke about the effectiveness of cameras, advertising campaigns and enforcement on reducing accident rates and how those methods might help in China.
Long way to go
Swerving between trucks and a median, going the wrong way down a one-way street and creating an extra turning lane on the way back from the conference in a cab, I had trouble imagining those kinds of measures gaining much traction here.
Crazy traffic patterns in China have even inspired video on YouTube. Click above to watch footage of traffic at an intersection in Zhaoqing, Guangodong Province.
Part of the problem, an event organizer told me, was the low priority of road safety when compared to other problems like HIV/AIDS or SARS.
China it seems, as the saying for so many problems goes, has too many people, especially when they all take to the road.
Until the forum's advice is implemented, I'm looking into extra health insurance.