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Date Posted: 10:34 16/01/2004

China's biggest killer

Follow the Green Cross Code if you want - it doesn't make the slightest difference.

THERE IS a deadly killer in China, and it isn't SARS or bird flu, but the internal combustion engine. China's Ministry of Public Security said today that 104,372 people were killed on the roads in 2003. The death rate had, in fact, fallen 4.6% since 2002. That's good news, but 15% of the world's traffic deaths still take place in China, according to AFP, even though it has only 2% of the world's vehicles. That ought to tell you something.

The rate doesn't look likely to fall significantly this year, with a spate of serious collisions and pile-ups already reported throughout China, including Shenzhen.

The roads in Shanghai are bad enough. Worsening rush-hour congestion is not the most serious problem, because at least the traffic police mark every junction, and are all desperate to fulfil their monthly arrest targets by chasing down every minor infringement. At least, too, there is no way of driving at full speed when there is a 200m tailback just ahead. Nevertheless, the chaos is astonishing, and the attitude of ordinary drivers towards pedestrians can best be described as cavalier. Zebra crossings are routinely ignored, and corners are taken at full speed even when the little green man bleeps. Taxis reverse onto pavements with no regard to the people passing by, and trucks sweep past, unable or unwilling to acknowledge the cycle lanes, the motorbikes, or the various small animals now crushed under their wheels.

Running Dog used to think that there was a sort of order amid the chaos. To the untrained eye it appeared as if every vehicle was trying to overtake the next, jamming its bumper in the yard of space that lay ahead. It seemed that every cab and every bus accelerated on the turn, and if ever there was even the remotest hope of beating a red light, each and every vehicle would take it, nipping deftly through the lines of schoolchildren, the prams, the pensioners. However, if everyone did this, at least their behaviour was clear and well understood. Individual drivers could not be criticized for being impolite, or negligent, because they were all equally impolite and equally negligent. That was just how it was, and despite the mayhem, there was usually a look of blissful serenity on most drivers' faces.

The big problem is that everyone wants a car. Those in Shanghai who aren't driving already certainly want to drive soon. Most of the old state-owned employees, recently sacked, seem to choose to club together for a cab license. Statistics compiled by Running Dog indicate that there are already more taxi-drivers than people in some districts of the city.

Something, eventually, has got to give. If the car-ownership rate in China were to match that in the United States, there would be 600 million more cars on the road. Running Dog wonders what will happen when over 600 million cars tear across China's highways with anything like the same reckless abandon.

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