As I get ever more comfortable with my bike and ride further and further, I am forced to reconcile myself to being in perpetual danger when I'm on 2 wheels.
When I first came to Wuhan, with her barely there, rutted roads and indiscriminate traffic – including scooters, pedestrians and the odd stray pack of dogs, I reasoned it was just a matter of time before my innards and sinew helped pave the roads, whether I was walking or on a bus. Surely I was bound to get run over and, equally surely: nobody would notice another bump in the road among all the other bumps and the potholes. Back then I seldom rode in taxis, but when I took that part time job teaching at the Lil'Uns school I rode taxis 4 times per week. Riding in a car leaves one feeling more vulnerable because of the vehicle's smallness as compared to buses, and because the drivers invariably believe they are immortal race car drivers for whom the road was actually meant for.
Since those fogged out days, I've come to understand how drivers in China manage to survive the roads day after day. Later, I'll tell you how cyclists and pedestrians manage to survive.
Everyone in China is taught to drive by the same method and with the same curriculum. A few of my friends, Sam included, have given me the inside scoop on key driving points. I assure you that those who have grown up in the car culture might be appalled by the instructions Chinese drivers operate under. I present the most offensive tactics to you in no particular order.
Parking appears to be such an arduous task that most parking lots offer guides to help steer you into a parking space. In lots where there are no such guides, vehicles are parked haphazardly. Example: Metro has front-in parking with no island divider or barrier restricting one car to one spot. It is possible for one vehicle to compromise 4 spots... and I've seen it, countless times.
Blind spots: apparently there are none in China. Fledgling drivers are instructed only to consult their mirrors when changing lanes and backing up. None of the drivers I know or any taxi drivers I've ridden with look over their shoulder to check the blind spot. None look over their shoulder to backup, either.
Merging into traffic: although there are 'yield' signs on side roads feeding onto main arteries, nobody ever seems to yield to oncoming traffic, bicycles or pedestrians. In fact, nobody seems to yield to oncoming traffic if they are pulling out of a parking space. In short: nobody yields. If an oncoming driver is suddenly hampered by a merging vehicle, s/he will swerve his/her car (or truck, or bus) into the next lane, causing that lane's car to have to either slam on the brakes or lay on the horn.
For this I blame the Chinese word 让 (rang), which means 'let' and 'allow' but whose meaning also includes 'yield'. As a lone character (instead of being used in tandem with another), it is best used in the sense of 'let me help you' or 'allow me speak'. I believe Chinese drivers see that character and interpret it to mean 'allow me to go first' or 'let me jump out ahead of you'.
Some drivers nose halfway into a traffic lane from a side road, and then stop and look right at oncoming cars. Just as the moving traffic (or bike rider) gets within a few meters with no sign of slowing down, the merging driver will execute his/her turn with excruciating slowness, sometimes across all available lanes, causing every driver on the main road to have to slam on the brakes or swerve. If one is pulling out onto a 2-lane road, both directions' traffic is blocked. Naturally, angry honking ensues.
看 (kan) – a vision related word, gets the blame for this. In English we have all manner of words to describe activities involving vision: read a book, watch TV, look at the sky, see a sight, visit a friend, among others. Some, like 'visit' and 'see' suggest action. 'Watch' and 'read', while still involving the visual cortex, suggest passivity. In Chinese, that one word: 'kan' represents everything visual.
Sam told me he was instructed to 'kan' traffic, and then pull out. With no specific directive as to which 'kan' to practice, I could see how drivers might think they are to look at traffic rather than watch for traffic. Perhaps driving instructors should teach their students to wait for oncoming cars to go by before pulling out, but even that advice could be misinterpreted.
And then, there is the manic way that drivers just pull out without looking at oncoming traffic at all. This I pin to the imperative: 'Watch where you're going'. Perhaps driving instructors are so insistent that their students watch where they are going that they neglect to instruct them to look at what is coming. Plenty of times I've witnessed vehicles pulling out without the driver turning his head to gauge oncoming traffic. I now approach side roads and parking lot exits warily, knowing that there is bound to be someone pulling out without a glance to what might be hurtling toward them.
In the case of bicycles, there is most likely no hurtling. Dump trucks, semis and buses do hurtle, with a penchant for leaning on the horn as a warning to any impudent driver who might decide to test the oncoming vehicle's brakes. That timbre is particularly nerve wracking on the main road in front of our school because the sound is amplified and reverberates under the elevated highway. The 'watch where you're going' theme seems to cloak pedestrians as well. If a pedestrian is not watching where s/he is going, the rest of traffic is, and will dodge the inattentive pedestrian.
Drivers have a maddening habit of stopping in the middle of the road for no apparent reason, causing other vehicles to swerve around them. For that, I blame the Chinese drivers' love of GPS.
Chris, Julia and I were headed to Metro. I can get there in my sleep! I've been there by bus, subway and have even ridden my bike there. I was a bit nonplussed when Chris programmed the store's address into his GPS, even though I told him I could tell him how to get there. This theoretically highly functional device took so long to give directions that, at times, Chris stopped in the middle of the road, waiting for the machine to spit out its next instruction.
Cell phones, illegal while driving, also accounts for a lot of this phenomenon. People will hunt their phone for directions, stopping in the middle of the street to punch all the appropriate buttons. In fact, cell phone usage in general is a woe of Chinese traffic. 'Ware of the scooter rider who chats away! It seems they get lost in conversation and pay no mind to what is going on around them. A cyclist or pedestrian is just as likely to get hit by a powered scooter as a car or bus.
With all of these hazards to watch out for, why do I ride? And why ride on the street?
Most everywhere I ride there are bike lanes. Most all of the bike lanes are lousy with pedestrians who will not move out of the way, who give not a whit for an urgently ringing bicycle bell. Quite a few pedestrians are plugged into their phones, indifferent to what is going on around them. Some bike lanes are clogged with parked cars. Sometimes, cars and buses drive in the bicycle lanes to get around snarled traffic. I figure I'm safer on the road where, more often than not, traffic is standing still or at a crawl.
Many people say that the Chinese are terrible drivers. Having grown up in a car culture and having driven for many years myself, I too am amazed at how these people manage to get anywhere in one piece. But I have to wonder: if everyone in China drives the same way, is it bad or wrong?