BEFORE the term “lao si ji,” literally old driver, became a popular pun for a hardened philanderer, it used to be an honorary title bestowed on skilled drivers.
Although I only started to sit behind the steering wheel about two years ago, I believe that these two years of intensive practicing, training and adaptation on Shanghai’s highly risky roads have turned me into a “lao si ji.” Well, quite.
In order to earn that badge of honor, one simply has to be vastly resourceful and extremely responsive to every possible risk on the road. For example, since many Chinese drivers have the annoying habit of never bothering to signal when making a lane change, it is strongly advised to place one’s foot constantly on the brake, to be on alert for a potential rear-end collision.
During my days as a novice driver, I encountered several situations in which I had to hit the brake violently to avoid crashing into the cars that suddenly cut in ahead of mine. Fuming, I could not help letting loose a torrent of abuse.
Once during the evening rush hours, I was inching forward on an off-ramp from the Yan’an Elevated Highway. Without signaling or approaching the median line, a man driving a Toyota sedan on my right suddenly swerved left. I gasped, slammed on the brake and narrowly escaped hitting the sedan.
In an outburst of road rage, I pulled up beside the Toyota, glared at the driver and honked once to protest. He didn’t even stare back. He couldn’t care less. Obviously he is an expert at this willful escapade.
Before long, I realized that there are plenty more of such douche bags on Shanghai’s roads, and since they cannot be made to see how rude they are, the choice left is either to tolerate their derring-do, or as the old adage goes, if you cannot beat them then join them.
On several occasions I did find myself joining this sorry bunch after reconciling myself with the fact that those who don’t signal actually have a good reason for not doing so. Only a handful of motorists, at least in my own experience, showed their civility by yielding to cars signaling for a lane change.
Over time, this led to bewilderment, followed by disillusionment. Despite having spent time to regurgitate the traffic rules to pass the written test for the driver’s license, many seem to give little thought to these rules in reality.
Instead, to be able to survive China’s roads, one of the cardinal principles appears to be to unlearn what is learnt at the driving school and make impromptu changes where necessary. For example, even the forbidden practice of overtaking a slow car from the right side is sometimes an option. Forget about road civility, this is a mere afterthought.
It is with mixed feelings that I salute the recently updated traffic regulation, said to be the strictest ever to be adopted in Shanghai.
On the one hand, I do believe that the laws must be made to have teeth to deal with public hazards like the Toyota driver; to crack down hard on illegal driving behavior that makes Shanghai’s roads a free-for-all where the only rule that applies is “who dares wins.”
On the other, I am less optimistic than some about the odds of the new regulation succeeding in drilling some much-needed sense of civility and road manners into the minds of daredevils.
And this paradoxical mentality became even more agonizing following my recent trip to Germany and Austria. During the eight-day trip, I drove some 2,000 kilometers. Despite the fatigue resulting from long hours of driving — I once drove non-stop for about 450 kilometers from Munich to Vienna — I remained mentally at ease throughout the journey.
Since sections of the German Autobahn, or expressways, are exempt from speed limits, it’s common to see cars hurtling at over 200 kilometers per hour. And I remember being told by a German friend, beaming, that the recklessness often seen in Chinese motorists is nowhere to be found on German roads.
To put his assertion to the test, I once hit the gas pedal to take my diesel-powered Volkswagen Golf Variant to over 180kph, only to slow down when my ashen-faced wife begged me to in a trembling voice. Although my palms were sweaty from an adrenaline rush and from gripping the wheel a bit too tightly to avoid lane departure, my mind was fairly relaxed. I even had time to take in the pastoral beauty of the Bavarian countryside and breathe in the crisp March air adulterated with a thick smell of cow manure.
It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s safer to drive 200kph on German motorways than 60kph on Shanghai’s elevated highways. This appears to be born out by statistics. According to a 2015 WHO report, Germany has one of the world’s lowest road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants: 4.3 compared to China’s 18.8.
The key to understanding the paradox between general road safety and the (partial) absence of speed limits lies perhaps in the German conformity to order and rules.
Given my observation, almost every vehicle would spontaneously leave the fast lane on an Autobahn after overtaking a car in front; you can literally careen down the road at the sight of inverted yellow triangular signs that suggest you have the indisputable right of way; and whenever I slowed down on urban roads, trying to follow the GPS directions, no German driver ever honked at me or intimidated me with high beam headlights. They just followed patiently behind. When their patience did wear thin, they overtook me at a safe distance. By the way, they were more willing to yield to cars that signaled.
In my opinion, one of the most admirable aspects of German traffic is that the rigidity of the rules enforced is softened by a dose of flexibility for personal touch — civility shown to pedestrians is reciprocated with a nod, a smile or a thumbs-up. Respect begets respect.
I experienced a culture shock (or should it be reverse culture shock?) in the first days upon my return to Shanghai. During the morning madness I tried to play the German card in a lane change.
To my dismay, I signaled for 10 seconds, but no cars slowed down to let me pass. In a sign of cussedness, some even revved up the engine and zoomed past me.
Seeing that the German ways didn’t work, I switched back to the Chinese mode: I swerved to force my way into a column of vehicles.
It is reported that Shanghai’s updated traffic regulations include clauses that oblige motorists to yield to pedestrians when making a left/right turn.
For this clause to work, however, stricter law enforcement is critically needed in addition to a public awareness campaign. Until we have a police officer deployed at every intersection to ensure compliance, allow me to be mildly skeptical about the effects of the rule.
In a similar vein, until many drivers learn to treat other “lesser beings” on the road with a little more respect and dignity, they are unworthy of the “lao si ji” title, however skilled they might be.