Asia Rising: Surviving Road Rage in China

Finally, I decided to take the test to get a Chinese driver's license. Beijing streets are so crowded, chaotic and polluted that driving is pretty stressful these days, at least compared to the way it used to be. And there's no place to park. Because of all the mayhem, I'd boycotted the idea of getting a license for years.

I used to love driving in China. In 1980, when I arrived in Beijing for my first posting, few Chinese had private cars. The streets were spacious, wide-open thoroughfares that beckoned to those of us with wheels; we would pull over to the curb and park virtually any time, anywhere, even in Tiananmen Square. In those days foreign residents could import cars but weren't allowed to roam very far while driving them. Beijing to Tianjin—a journey that takes about an hour today—was the furthest we could drive.

By the mid-'80s there were loads of Chinese drivers willing to take a foreigner long distances in their vehicles, so long as the price was right. One summer I started a road odyssey in Pakistan, traveling by jeep from Peshawar to the Chinese border and the Central Asian bazaar city of Kashgar. From there I hitched a ride with a Chinese truck across the foreboding Taklamakan desert to Urumqi, then hired a Chinese taxi to Lhasa, the fabled capital of Tibet. Even with the harrowing moments—like when the taxi driver fell ill with altitude sickness when we were over 17,000 feet high on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau—it was a grand adventure.

By the time I arrived in Beijing for a second posting in 1998, my old Chinese driver's license was long expired. I decided to get a new one this year, because yet another long-distance high-altitude road trip beckons, this time to a remote horse festival in the western province of Sichuan.

Not long ago, I joined a few dozen other expatriates in a Beijing driver's-license testing hall where we each got a neatly printed test of 100 questions. You have to get at least 90 correct to pass, and all of the questions come out of a 91-page booklet "Road Traffic Safety Rules and Regulations, Exam Reference Manual." Hah! The rules say drivers aren't permitted to wear slippers, smoke, eat, make mobile-phone calls or talk to distraction with passengers while driving a vehicle. Yet I've known a driver to do all of the above, simultaneously, while tooling down a fogbound Inner Mongolian highway at high speed.

Without doubt the most memorable question is the infamous one about intestines. Specifically, it's a multiple-choice question about what to do if you come across a traffic accident victim with an open abdominal wound from which the small intestine is protruding. The choices are a) put it back, b) no treatment, or c) not put it back but cover with a bowl or jar, and bind the bowl or jar with a cloth belt.

In the booklet, the correct answer is c. This would be difficult for me because I don't usually drive with a handy bowl or jar suitable for collecting body organs. However Chinese drivers often sip from a jam jar or thermos cup specially designed to hold boiled water and tea leaves. I imagine such an implement might come in handy as an intestine scoop if one happens upon a particularly bad smashup.

Those smashups happen much more often than they should. Don't get me wrong; I'm not complaining about China's driving test, nor about the fact that it's getting more difficult to obtain a license. Too often traveling by road in China is a near-death experience. Or worse. Just last week a 23-year-old news assistant from the Agence-France Press bureau in Beijing died tragically in a traffic accident during the May Day holiday.

In the past half decade, annual traffic deaths in China have officially hovered around 100,000, according to statistics from the Public Security Ministry, which are thought to be on the conservative side. Last year nearly 99,000 people died and 470,000 were injured in vehicular accidents, according to the government. Car ownership is new for many Chinese, and they sometimes embrace their new toy with more exuberance than smarts. China's 1.3 billion people own 2 percent of the world's vehicles but account for 15 percent of global traffic deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

Foreign correspondents often worry about coming to harm in some exotic circumstance—being executed by Iraqi kidnappers, say, or getting shot during a coup—but we're probably more likely to get hurt in a mundane road mishap. While covering wars and unrest in many countries over the years, I've been in car accidents (in Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq and China) way more times then I've been shot (in the Philippines). The latter was a small flesh wound to the knee, patched up by Filipino doctors celebrating the imminent fall of Ferdinand Marcos.

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 or truckers on long hauls nodding off to sleep as they transport yet more goods to feed the country's booming economy.

Late last year a truck driver speeding along in Shaanxi province mowed down a group of students who were jogging on a rural road. Shockingly, 18 people were killed instantly, including a teacher, and three additional victims died in the hospital. "Truck drivers are the most outrageous in this country," lamented Liu Shinan in a China Daily article about the tragedy. "The trucks they are driving can become lethal weapons." The writer cited instances of Chinese drivers—even experienced ones—having difficulty obtaining licenses in Australia, Britain or the United States because they have little knowledge of road ethics.

To be sure, the official booklet of rules and regulations does have a chapter titled "Driving With Civility and Professional Ethics." It makes driving sound like a genteel activity of which the ancient scholar Confucius would have approved. One question asks if drivers should a) deliberately underestimate each other, b) compete for road supremacy or c) learn and help each other, adopt one's strong point while overcoming one's weak point and keep safely driving. I don't know what the last homily means either, but I guessed it be the correct answer—and indeed it was. Don't you love multiple choice?

The gap between rules and reality abounds in media coverage of driving dramas. A government cadre in an SUV chased down and ran over a pedestrian because the guy accidentally scratched the apparatchik's car. A psychiatric patient injured in a hit-and-run accident wasn't assisted by passersby for five days (no intestine-scooping here) so he froze to death. A Chinese youth gang specializes in driving at 150kph (93mph) on Beijing's second ring road, circumnavigating the city in 13 minutes.

Now that I have a new license—yes, I passed the test—I'm ready to hit the road. But what should I do when I encounter unsafe drivers, say, on the second ring. The rules offer this suggestion: "When a driver finds another driver's driving skill poor or operation incorrect" the first driver should inform the second driver of his error in a timely manner so as to avoid an accident. I'll be sure to do just that—if I can catch up with him.