The No. 1 rule of the road in Beijing: It has no rules

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

February 25, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- Let's get one thing straight from the start: This is not another harangue from a pampered foreigner on how trying it is to drive in the Third World. I love driving here. Really.

The traffic in some other Asian capitals -- Bangkok, Taipei, Manila -- may be worse, but this city offers unique challenges.

Beijing has some of China's best roads, many of them wide, Soviet-style boulevards with separate lanes for bicyclists. It has sidewalks, traffic lights, crosswalks, pedestrian signals, traffic police -- all the trappings of order.

But hardly anyone pays attention to all that. Instead, getting behind the wheel here means that virtually anything can happen at any time.

Pedestrians cross streets wherever they want. They step off curbs without a glance toward traffic, walk down the centers of roads, stand in roads for no apparent reason, even eat in the street.

Beijing's 6 million bicyclists shoot out of nowhere with similar inattention. They boldly butt their bikes into roads, half blocking curb lanes and challenging approaching cars to stop -- even on the city's expressways and even, at times, with babies on the backs of their bikes.

By night, Beijing's perpetual haze and gloomy lighting reduce the pedestrians and cyclists to barely discernible, fleeting shapes, and driving here becomes a sort of warped, potentially fatal video game.

In all fairness to the vast majority without cars, Beijing's drivers also display a universal disregard for the supposed rules of the road.

They pull out without looking, ignore lane markings, run red lights, suddenly make U-turns, drive on sidewalks and seldom use their turn signals or rear- and side-view mirrors. They cut left turns so sharply that they often end up headed down the wrong side of the street.

Compounding all of this is the unwritten but cardinal rule of driving here: Never come to a complete stop, else your car will be swarmed by pedestrians and cyclists instinctively taking advantage of your temerity.

A visiting journalist from Israel -- a country known for insane driving habits -- was considerably shaken by a short drive here one night. He likened driving in Beijing to "slaloming" on skis.

"It's easy," I lied, steering around a corner, honking repeatedly to force a pack of cyclists back into their lane, swerving around a few stragglers, accelerating toward an opening, abruptly stopping for a woman and toddler, accelerating again, veering around a three-wheel bike bearing a refrigerator, braking, accelerating, swerving.

Frankly, many foreigners here aren't up to this. They waste a lot of time moaning to each other about how impossible Beijing's traffic has become. Some refuse to drive themselves. Not this correspondent.

I love driving here because it puts me in touch with the true spirit of this place. Every student of Chinese history learns this is a land with a long tradition of rule by man rather than rule by law. And it's on Beijing's byways that this abstraction achieves concrete expression.

Every moment on Beijing's streets involves a new set of one-on-one negotiations with every other nearby driver, pedestrian or cyclist. Not looking where you're headed actually turns out to be a rather effective way of bluffing everyone else into taking full responsibility for not hitting you.

Naturally, this strategy fails now and then. The result is that China is said to have the highest traffic fatality rate in the world taking into account the number of vehicles driven. Almost 50,000 people die here in traffic accidents each year, about the same number as in the United States, which has 14 times as many vehicles as China.

Chinese drivers who run down others are sometimes executed. Those who merely bump a pedestrian or cyclist are usually subject to bureaucratic torture, typically settled by shelling out a fair sum of cash.

Of course, as with most matters here, that depends on who you are. Take the perhaps apocryphal tale that made the rounds here a while ago, one involving a relative of Chinese Premier Li Peng.

The story goes that a relative of Mr. Li seriously injured a pedestrian with his car. Traffic officers were about to arrest him when the premier's bodyguards showed up and told them: "You can't do that -- he's related to Li Peng."

"Well, someone has to be at fault," the officers replied. And after a nervous huddle, off they went to the hospital to charge the maimed pedestrian.

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