Why do they do that? Driving & Queueing in China

by admin

As someone with abundant experience in China, the two questions I hear the most from people who visit China for the first time are as follows:


Why do the Chinese drive the way they do?


Why don’t they queue in China (and instead just bunch up and jostle for position)?


Interestingly, both of these issues related to the theme of this section—Rule of Law.


Poor countries have bad drivers

When I lived near Datong, China and managed a joint venture factory, our partner didn’t want me to drive so I had a company car (Jetta) and a driver.  There was a traffic circle on the way from the guest house where I stayed to the factory.  Our turn off the circle was at 270 degrees around it.  Almost every day, my driver would go the wrong way on the traffic circle.  Since traffic was generally light and slow, I didn’t comment often.  Every now and then, we would find ourselves head-on with another car.  I might say, “You know, you’re going the wrong way.”  He’d say, “Yeah, but he (the other driver) sees me.  He can get out of the way.”  I’d say, “OK.  But you are going the wrong way.”  He would again reply, “But he can see me.”  The debate never seemed to progress beyond that.  I suppose if we were moving quickly or there were many cars I would have been more stringent.  But frankly, I just let him do his job.


Once a Chinese colleague visited and I took him to dinner in Pittsburgh.  Driving him back to his hotel near the airport late at night, we had to drive through a residential neighborhood with a series of stop signs.  There was no one else on the road.  Nevertheless, I stopped at each stop sign.  My colleague eventually asked, “Would all Americans stop like this?”  When I replied in the affirmative, he said, “In China, no one would stop.”


The UN takes bad driving seriously

Not only are differences in driving habits readily observable, there is also some decent data on the subject.  Traffic accidents and fatalities are such a big problem globally that the UN has an effort, the UN Road Safety Collaboration (UNRSC), dedicated to trying to improve the situation and save lives.  Roughly 1.35 million people die per year in traffic accidents which is the 9th largest cause of death among all age groups and the number one cause among 5-29 year-olds.


Here’s the interesting point for our discussion.  According to statistics gathered by the UNRSC, traffic fatalities per vehicle are almost 900% higher in low and mid income countries as compared to the high income countries.  This is an enormous difference.  Not 9% or even 90%.  Traffic fatalities outside the advanced economies are 9X higher than within the advanced economies.  That is an absolutely overwhelming difference.


Not just because of seat belts

The UNRSC points to a number of possible factors for the difference, including unsafe roads and failure to utilize such safety devices as seatbelts, child constraints, and motorcycle helmets.  Certainly those factors play a role, but it seems unlikely they would account for a 900% difference.   One report by the World Bank cites a Chinese internal study that lists such causes as “aggressive driving, exceeding speed limit, driving in the wrong lane, illegal turn or direction, and illegal overtaking” as significant causes of China’s high rate of traffic fatalities.  A Bloomberg article on traffic safety in Russia quotes Vladimir Kuzin, deputy chief of Russia’s traffic police, as blaming undisciplined drivers for most fatalities. “The primary cause of high mortality on the roads [is] drivers’ lack of respect for the law, a nihilism about the rules of the road. Drivers don’t maintain speed limits, don’t yield to pedestrians on crosswalks, and don’t wear their seat belts.”  The article also states that drivers were responsible for 84 percent of fatal accidents last year, according to official statistics.


The data matches observation: Driving is chaotic in low income countries

Note that the pattern holds once again—low income countries exhibiting one type of behavior, high income countries exhibit different behavior, and elections don’t make a difference.  That pattern is remarkably consistent.


Queuing: The most basic rule of all

This brings us back to the opening point about queuing.  I don’t think there is any data on queuing, although you can find a few articles about companies like Disney designing queuing areas in China differently so as to minimize the opportunity to cut in line.  I once read an article which tried to present the Chinese queuing practices as being a result of some sort of intrinsic, exclusive Chinese cultural attribute.  I thought that was a great example of the fallacy of cultural relativism.  For one thing, when Chinese don’t queue, there are often other Chinese telling them they should queue.  Not everyone eschews the queue.  Secondly, the Chinese queue more now than they did 25 years ago.  Thirdly, China isn’t the only country that doesn’t always queue.  I’ve seen it myself in Indonesia and Thailand, among other places.  I’ve had other businesspeople tell me they’ve seen the same type of behavior in Africa and other parts of Asia.  I’ve never heard anyone say that they saw non-queuing in a country like Canada, Belgium, or Japan.  I’ve read books stating that queuing increased in S. Korea as it developed.  As opposed to being a behavior that is somehow permanently and intrinsically Chinese, it seems fairly clear that this is another in a long list of behaviors which are common among low income countries and less common in high income countries.


Queuing isn’t necessarily a law.  But it is a rule, maybe the most elementary, unwritten, social rule there is.  When a group of us wants the same thing at the same time, we will wait in an orderly fashion, first come, first serve, out of fairness to all.  It is a rule that is relevant to all societies.  But it is far more frequently followed in more advanced societies.


Sense of organization and rule following is critical to business

This might seem insignificant to you, but it wasn’t to me.  My job was to manage a factory.  The ability of the local personnel to work in a systematic, process-oriented, rule-based fashion, to complete tasks in an expected fashion so their work meshed with their colleagues and met technical and quality requirements, was extremely important.  I felt that the same mindset that produced lower levels of queuing also effected how people worked.  It wasn’t just a nuisance or curiosity to me.  I had to adapt to that as a manager.


Queuing and driving show how deeply culture runs

Queuing doesn’t have a direct link to democracy.  Neither does driving.  But I like to focus on these two issues because they demonstrate the depth of the cultural tendency relative to the rule of law.  Beyond political coercion or corruption, or even economically beneficial areas like intellectual property or commercial fraud, weakness in the rule of law extends to everyday activities like driving and queuing which are generally conducted on a subconscious level.  If that is the case, imagine how difficult it is to change that type of behavior, which helps explain why 70 years of elections in India has barely made a dent in corruption and the rule of law.


Forget spreading democracy.  Can we get people to follow driving rules?

I particularly like to reference driving and queuing to make the point that the transition to democracy requires a deep and broad transformation of society and is not easy.  We spent 20 years and a $1 Trillion trying to make Afghanistan a democracy.  We did likewise in Iraq.  We failed in both bases.  Even if we settled for more modest goals such as getting those countries to queue and follow traffic rules, we would have failed, unless we accompanied the effort with several decades of solid economic growth.

You may also like