Reflections from China: 1

Driving on Autopilot

Who Needs Traffic Lights?

Who Needs Traffic Lights?

If you visit a new country for the first time there are always surprises: the culture, the food, the language, the way people dress, the customs and so on. Anne (my wife) and I are in China for the first time, and all of the above certainly apply. But what I want to write about here is the traffic – or more specifically, the way people drive.

We are in Szechuan province, famed for spicy food (there are some other rather “exotic” expressions of the culinary arts here that you would certainly not see alongside the Szechuan chicken in a Western Chinese restaurant, but we won’t go there at the moment), giant pandas, the Bamboo Forest where Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was filmed, an earthquake disaster a few years ago, and the provincial capital Chengdu: one of the seats of ancient Chinese civilisation, home to 15 million people and still unheard of by many people in the West. Chengdu is our base on this trip.

We had been told that the traffic in Chengdu was terrible – completely gridlocked during rush hour periods. Actually we think that London is far worse. At least the traffic here moves slowly at its peak… But what struck us was not the volume, so much as the driving style.

In England we have the Highway Code. The Highway Code defines pretty well how to behave in any circumstance: what side of the road to drive on, who has the right of way where, how to approach a junction etc. We know where we are and what to expect, and we know what the other chap is supposed to do. How many times could the caption to a minor accident be “But I had the right of way, and he just pulled out in front of me!” A lot of the time we drive, to a degree, on autopilot.

Here though, it’s a different story. They do have road markings of some sort, but they seem to be, well, optional.  Crossing a major intersection seems to be more a matter of picking a way across the traffic rather than waiting for a gap. The scene is more reminiscent of a dodgems circuit than a crossroads. (Actually the dodgems ride is probably more ordered: “This way round” comes to mind!) And it’s accompanied by the soundtrack of a cacophony of hooters. There seems to be a single rule, and it goes a bit like this: “I want to go there, and if I hoot (not that you’ll know I’m hooting at you, but never mind I’ll hoot anyway) and head in that direction, the chances are you’ll stay out of my way!

The amazing thing it seems to work. We’ve only been here a couple of weeks, but in that time I have not heard a single screech of brakes, let alone witnessed any kind of accident. Then this morning, as we were in the back of a car and the driver was threading his way across the oncoming traffic to turn right, I had an idea: the reason these people manage to avoid accidents is because they are watching each other, instead of making assumptions. There may be no apparent adherence to much in the way of a Highway Code, but there is no autopilot either.

Has this got anything to do with dyslexia?

I’ve often heard it said by dyslexic people that they don’t drive on autopilot – they have to think about every driving decision. Anne said as we sat in the car this morning (and she was talking from experience) that she reckoned a dyslexic person wouldn’t have any trouble negotiating that crossroads, as the attention required would be no different to how they normally operate anyway. And here is where this little story has been leading: maybe we all need to learn from the dyslexic mind, as we try to negotiate the busy crossroads of our lives – better to watch out for each other than always to go by the book.

Bob Hext

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