August 17, 2007
BY ALAN PAUL of Wall Street Journal recounts driving a car in China.
Ever since I got my Chinese driver's license, I worried about getting in an accident. The packed roads and erratic driving made me fear for my and my family's safety. But even setting aside those primal fears, I had other concerns.
I have heard stories of Westerners being surrounded by crowds and harassed in the wake of accidents. A Chinese-American colleague of my wife, Rebecca, told me that once, years ago, she got into an accident with a pedestrian. She got out to check on him and was surrounded by a crowd of people demanding that she give him money. Her feeling of being taken advantage of was particularly acute since she felt fairly sure she hadn't really hit him -- that he slapped the car and fell over. After much discussion, and feeling very intimidated, she eventually drove him to a doctor, who declared him unscathed.
If that could happen to her, fluent in Chinese, I wondered what would happen to me. I also recalled a conversation I had with an American woman giving me a ride home within weeks of my arrival in Beijing. She told me that her husband's employer, a Fortune 500 company, gave her an emergency number to call and instructed her to lock herself in her car and wait for help to arrive in the event of an accident.
There are plenty of opportunities for confrontation since law and custom dictate that following an accident, the involved cars do not budge until the police arrive to photograph and document the scene. I often see two cars stopped, and the drivers discussing the situation -- usually calmly, sometimes aggressively. I have also noted that these drivers occasionally wait hours for the police to arrive -- and that they will not move an inch, even if traffic is snarled for miles.
In my first seven months driving here, I piloted a beater 1992 Jeep Cherokee with more dinged than smooth surfaces and had no problems. Within two months of buying a new car, however, I backed into a compact car, looking right over its low rear end as I attempted an absurd reverse merge onto the busy Jing Shun Road. The driver charged at me, waving a cigarette and screaming, but I quickly calmed him by accepting responsibility and assuring him I would pay. His rear panel was badly dented. In America, it would be a $500 repair; I had no idea what it might cost me in China.
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