Crossing out road rules

By Chang Meng Source:Global Times Published: 2013-3-28 23:58:01


Cyclists wait for traffic lights behind the white line at the intersection of Huancheng North Road and Hushu North Road in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, on March 7, 2013. Photo: CFP
Cyclists wait for traffic lights behind the white line at the intersection of Huancheng North Road and Hushu North Road in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, on March 7, 2013. Photo: CFP

 "You insane people, waiting on the street! I just ignored the red light, what can you do to me?" the middle-aged woman yelled at a traffic police officer as she brought her bicycle to a halt by the roadside.

After being asked for her name and ID, she shouted, "I don't have a name and I'm leaving, just take good care of my bike," before thrusting the bike at the police officer and storming away.

Residents in Huzhou, Zhejiang Province, witnessed this drama last week but these kinds of scenes have been seen across provinces and regions including Anhui, Shandong and Guangxi, as authorities have launched a campaign to crack down on violations of road rules, particularly "crossing the road, Chinese style."

The campaign became famous nationwide when Zhejiang's provincial Public Security Department announced last week that over 8,000 jaywalkers had been fined between five and 20 yuan ($3.20) since March 1. This campaign to reduce urban traffic congestion was listed as the top priority on the department's work plan this year and cracking down heavily on traffic violations became the starting point.

The campaign set the stage for a showdown between two stereotypically Chinese phenomena: moving across the road en masse without regard for traffic lights, which has been dubbed by Web users a "Chinese style" of crossing the road; and a forceful albeit short-lived crackdown by the authorities, which produces short-lived success.

Short-term crackdowns

Banners and slogans promoting traffic rules can still be seen on Zhejiang city streets, as has been the case in the past when the authorities have decided to focus on a particular social issue. The campaign in Zhejiang will last until December 31, prompting a massive police presence on the roads, with many doubting the effects will last.

"Beijing was fining jaywalkers in December but rarely does now," a traffic police warden surnamed Ma told the Global Times in reference to a campaign that was originally intended to last until March. It targeted pedestrians who attempted to cross roads as the lights were changing.

However, a recent online poll by Sina showed that over 70 percent of the 36,000 respondents actually support campaigns against traffic violations while only 11 percent are concerned about how to change behavioral patterns.

"It's a good method and it takes time for people to change their mindset," He Qun, a Ningbo traffic police officer, told the Global Times.

Sun Yangnan, a former judicial employee in Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province, said that campaigns are effective at solving critical and stubborn problems, but should be considered remedies to policy mistakes rather than achievements that officials can brag about.

"The problem now is that officials don't see any problem in letting problems brew and use these campaigns as a panacea," Sun told the Global Times.

Higher-ranked officials also admit that campaigns are mainly used to create momentum. "They usually end because of fatigue and a lack of resources. We often see problems reoccur afterward, but we need them to educate the public in a focused manner," a department-level official in the traffic system of Jilin Province told the Global Times.

'Chinese style' shortcuts?

Standing at a busy Beijing intersection for 10 minutes, a Global Times reporter noted that around 30 people ignored the lights at the intersection when crossing, many in small groups of three or four. "Most people listen to you, but there's no way to deal with those who don't, especially the groups," said Ma.

"When it's a group, we fine the 'leaders' and then often get into arguments. Occasionally people get violent and beat us," a Hangzhou traffic police officer surnamed Lin told the Global Times, a tale echoed by many of his peers.

When bending or breaking the rules, experts often cite a "herd mentality" as the main factor, but the public often comes up with other reasons.

"You just can't follow the lights because there's not enough time for you to get across," a young mother told the Global Times under the Huixin East Bridge in Beijing, before striding out on to the road while carrying her 4-year-old child and getting stuck between waves of cars.

The mother's argument was representative of many pedestrians who blame road rules that favor motorists. An ongoing project by Tongji University found that the longest time pedestrians are willing to wait is 90 seconds, while red lights at busy intersections in many cities often last for two minutes or more, leaving merely 20 to 40 seconds for pedestrians to cross a wide road.

"Pedestrians have weaker rights in our traffic system when compared to motor vehicles, especially when they have to cross roads at the same time as turning cars," said Ni Ying, a lecturer with the School of Transportation Engineering at Tongji University, who is leading the project.

However, Mao Baohua, professor of traffic systems at Beijing Jiaotong University, pointed out that this was no excuse.

"It's true that current urban traffic facilities need a lot of improvement and road rights need to be adjusted, but you can't ignore violators simply because they are the 'weak party.' That would further encourage offenders and hamper the power of the law," Mao told the Global Times.

Xie Hui, a law professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said that ultimately, temporary campaigns can't solve problems related to the mentality of the public.

He also pointed out that these campaigns can be misleading. "They create the false impression that enforcement is cheaper than it really is," he said.

Peng Kaiping, a professor of psychology with Tsinghua University, told the Global Times that the root cause was a lack of education among the public. "It's related to behavioral principles in a modernized society, and we don't have a mature one yet."

Web users have also called for more consistent policies and stronger enforcement of laws. "Look at the small intersections without police, people break whatever rules they can even when there is a campaign going on. Punitive measures don't last long," said one Ningbo citizen.

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