Bystanders gather to watch as an injured man who was lying on the road beside… (Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Beijing — On the first day of instruction to get his driver's license, Zheng Hao and his classmates sat down in a dimmed room and watched a video produced by traffic police with the innocuous title "Care about life: Follow the traffic rules."
They were assaulted by 30 minutes of gruesome footage showing crushed cyclists, pedestrians flung into the air like rag dolls, charred human remains and victims' families grieving hysterically.
"The women in the class were sobbing afterward," said Zheng, 21. "Even the guys were disturbed."
To scare sense into millions of new drivers in a country with some of the deadliest roads in the world, Chinese authorities are releasing video of road accidents so grisly that it makes the crash reenactments shown in U.S. high schools feel G-rated.
"Police are trying to send a message that 'If you don't drive safely, this is what will happen to you,'" said Fan Li, an expert on driving behavior and editor of motorist manuals. "In China, people just aren't as aware of road safety as people overseas who are educated about it at a young age."
China in 2009 surpassed the U.S. to become the world's top buyer of new vehicles. More than 18 million new cars, trucks and buses — nearly 50,000 a day — were sold last year, according to the China Assn. of Automobile Manufacturers. Passenger cars accounted for the biggest chunk of those sales, and most were sold to first-time buyers, said Michael Dunne, an independent auto analyst based in Hong Kong.
China has about 85 million passenger cars plying its roads, about 40% fewer than in the United States. Yet 67,759 people died in road accidents in China in 2009, according to official statistics — more than twice the number in the U.S. the same year.
"They are not good drivers," Dunne said.
While inexperience is certainly a factor, Chinese motorists must negotiate more hazards than their counterparts in the industrialized world. Many pedestrians still behave as if the auto revolution in China never happened — wandering aimlessly into crosswalks, darting across eight-lane highways and loitering in traffic medians. Riders of motorcycles and bicycles often ignore traffic lights and weave in and out of traffic.
Vehicle drivers are just as reckless. Motorists who miss an exit often throw their cars into reverse and back up — even on the freeway. Many refuse to stop or yield when making a right turn, forcing cars and people out of the way. Drivers routinely barrel down the wrong side of the street.
The result: epic crashes. In December, 134 cars were involved in a 4-mile pileup on a foggy stretch of highway in Sichuan province. Weeks later, on the same day, 14 schoolchildren in central Hunan province died when their three-wheel vehicle swerved off a road, while seven people died in a 100-car pile-up in southwest Guizhou province.
Courteous driving is seldom rewarded. Stop at a zebra crossing for pedestrians and you could wait endlessly for the sea of people to part.
Experts say a culture of caution is still years away. Although the Chinese can spend hundreds of dollars on driving school and must pass an exhaustive exam, many soon abandon any good habits they've learned because traffic rules are rarely enforced.
"Rules, regulations and conditions vary wildly throughout China, but a general rule of thumb is that traffic safety is poor and driving in China can be dangerous," warns the U.S. State Department to travelers planning on motoring there. "Traffic is chaotic and poorly regulated, and right-of-way and other courtesies are usually ignored."
A common bumper sticker in China is "Newbie on the road, please excuse me." Someone who drives recklessly is called a ma lu sha shou, meaning "road killer." Even questions on the national driving exam underscore the potential peril. For example:
When trying to save a person who is on fire, the wrong response is:
A. Use sand to cover him.
B. Try to extinguish the fire on his clothing as quickly as possible.
C. Spray cold water on him.
D. Take off his burning clothes.
"These are first-generation car buyers," said Whitney Foard Small, a spokeswoman for Ford Motor Co., which runs free programs in China teaching drivers such basics as when to use a turn signal. "They don't come from a car culture. They don't have Mom and Dad teaching them how to drive courteously and how to be safe."
Traffic police have been trying to fill that void. Beijing recently announced a five-year plan to crack down on some of the most common bad driving habits, such as running red lights and failing to stop at zebra crossings. Also targeted: tossing garbage out of the window and needless honking.
Beijing television broadcasts a daily show called "Traffic Light" that mixes safety tips with footage of horrifying accidents. In an episode this year, a two-door compact ran a red light, collided with two cyclists and threw a pedestrian several feet into a sign post.