Monday, February 25, 2008

To Drive Or..

...Not To Drive

I read the following article a few months ago in “That’s Beijing” Magazine:

Checking out that new McDonald's drive-thru in Changping District has just gotten a little bit easier for foreigners due to a new regulation. Temporary driver's licenses can be acquired for a maximum of 90 days, applicants are exempt from the tests normally required, and there are no limitations on the number of times a driver can re-apply – all starting this year.

The reason for this change, speculates Jeff Jia, Director of Beijing Easy Business Services, is for the convenience of visitors descending on the city for the 2008 Olympic Games. "If everything is convenient for tourists – tourist information systems, road conditions, road networks and traffic signs, road markings – more people [will be] interested in driving … [especially] those people who want to discover the real China." According to Jia, fees for this service have yet to be set by the government. At press time, temporary visa applicants need only pay for their photos, medical examination and other materials that need to be submitted.

But don't retire those hitchhiking thumbs just yet, as only foreigners in possession of visas with a validity period of three months or less are permitted to apply. Not ideal, but at least the three-month F visa finally has its benefits.

Didn’t think much about it until I read this other article last week:

BEIJING (Reuters) - Tourists seeking their own Olympian challenge while attending the Beijing Games this August might be tempted to get behind the wheel of a rental car and take a spin on the roads of the Chinese capital. For these intrepid tourists, here are some tips about how to drive in Beijing, a city with three million vehicles on its roads. Those who find the road rules overwhelming can ride the subway or take taxis, buses or limousines to sports venues.

1. Physics 101
Beijing drivers seem eager to challenge the physics principle that no two objects can simultaneously occupy the same point in space.
For instance, lane markers are largely ignored, serving no real purpose in keeping cars apart. When drivers want to get a good look down the road but the view is blocked by cars in front, drivers don't think twice about sliding halfway into the next lane and then straddling two lanes for as long as seems comfortable.
It's also not uncommon for drivers who have missed their exits to simply put the car in reverse and back up into traffic.

2. No-Look Turns
Some countries have rules allowing right turns on red lights. Beijing has something unique: No-look turns. That's right, they follow the maxim that "if you see me, you're responsible for not hitting me," and its corollary, "if I don't see you, it's not my fault if I hit you."
As a result, drivers regularly come flying into streets, merge onto highways or even switch lanes without the slightest attempt to check whether the way is clear. This habit seems a direct extension of China's bicycle culture, whereby every move is a calculated negotiation among throngs of cyclists flowing at roughly the same speed and in the same direction.
Keep your eyes open.

3. Emergency Lights
Don't panic if you see a police vehicle's flashing lights in your rear-view mirror. As a Chinese friend explained, police and other emergency workers typically turn them on just to show they are on duty. If there's no accompanying siren or honking, you can ignore them. Everyone does.
China may be an authoritarian state, but that doesn't mean authorities get much respect. Certainly, on the road they have to fend for themselves. Ordinary drivers can be seen honking and flashing bright lights at patrol cars that were deemed to be going too slowly.

4. Lost in Beijing
Reading maps is critical for anyone navigating a foreign city. But newcomers to Beijing may want to familiarize themselves not just with Beijing's main streets but also its bridges. That's because major intersections are known by the names of the overpass bridges that link intersecting streets.
Strangely, English maps give only the names of the roads, not the bridges. Road signs, however, give distances to upcoming bridges, not the roads. Go figure.

5. Give An Inch
Perhaps it's understandable in a country of 1.3 billion people that you don't get ahead by patiently waiting your turn. On the road, as in other aspects of their lives, Beijingers tend to grab opportunities whenever they appear. Such chances might come in the form of a few inches of space between cars in the next lane, just enough to squeeze in the car's nose and present the driver behind with the dilemma of giving way or causing a collision. The good thing is that Chinese drivers are generally not aggressive, and the high-testosterone road rage that is common on many U.S. highways, for instance, is not typical in Beijing.

6. Now Exhale
To its credit, Beijing is trying to keep drunk drivers off the road by making random spot-checks. Officers armed with portable breathalyzers jump from the curb when cars stop for red lights, forcing drivers to exhale into the machines. Unfortunately, the mouthpieces are used over and over as the officers move down a row of cars. When this driver made a feeble attempt to blow into the machine without making contact with the mouthpiece, an impatient officer suspected he'd caught a transgressor. He ordered me to the curb-side for a more thorough check. This time, though, he took a new mouthpiece from its plastic seal before the second test, which gave me the all-clear.

Happy driving, but be careful out there!

Well it doesn’t help me… since I’m not here on a tourist visa so if I ever want to drive I’d better go back to that funny translation of the Chinese Driving Code (more about this later!).

Anyhow this article made me wonder which one of the tourists who just stepped out of the airplane or the residents who have been living here for a few months, years and start to grasp the concept of driving by the Chinese, are more qualified hence allowed to drive in China.