Look ma, no helmets …
Helmets are for other people, at least here in Shanghai, and more broadly across China. Few, if any, scooter drivers or bikers wear them. Thus, you would think they are just not necessary, or perhaps drivers are unaware of them.
In an effort to further reduce safety while zooming through intersections and around cards, drivers often pile a kid on the front or back of scooters as they head to school, shopping, etc. Sometimes they add a wife, too, which is quite a sight, with two adults and a child on a single-person scooter, weaving through traffic.
Nuts, methinks. Absurdly dangerous, I hope you thinks.
All of this fascinates me, as I wonder why people would do this, assuming they have a basic understanding of physics, physiology, and mortality. However, not unlike Americans, folks here don’t seem to gauge risk very well. That’s led to serious challenges with gambling over the last couple centuries, but the stakes are even higher when you strap yourself and your child on a scooter for high-speed daily traffic exploration.
If you inquire about this, you’ll hear each driver thinks they are a very good driver, much better than the rest (as everyone here is above average). This is not an uncommon local sentiment, where folks have high confidence in their own skills. Despite the fact that many lack licenses and or have been driving only a few years.
But they strongly feel they are good enough to avoid accidents, even though the road fatality rate is nearly ten times that of the USA (with newer & better roads than America). Perceptions here don’t always fully coincide with reality.
To get a sense of traffic tactics, it may amuse you that drivers slow down when they approach intersections, especially where they have the green light, as there’s no telling what might cross in front of them. And everyone has a forward-facing car camera to record fools, accidents, and their intersection, usually in intersections.
Also, unlike many developing countries with very bad and dense slow-moving traffic, say India or Mexico, China’s urban roads are in excellent shape, often with bike and scooter lanes. As a result, people drive fast, always being in a hurry, as things move with China speed.
As a result, it’s really not a very safe place to drive, let alone on a scooter. Especially one overloaded with a kid and spouse. Without helmets. For example, in nearby Jiangsu province, over 50% of all road collisions involve scoots or e-bikes, and 70% of all deaths from those are due to head injuries, due to no helmet. These rates are rising, and nearly 10,000 people died this way in China in 2019.
I tell folks Shanghai is among the safest cities on Earth, until you step off the curb.
You’d be forgiven for asking about enforcement. Like many traffic laws in many places, this has really been ignored for a very long time. More police have shown up recently in Shanghai intersections to improve traffice safety, but their focus has been on running red lights and other dangerous maneuvers. Not hemets.
The law is catching up, as from June 1, 2020, all motorcyclists in China need helmets, and indeed you see them, however, motorcyles are very rare. Scooters and e-bikes are not rate and some provindes, such as Jiangsu started requiring them for all scooters and e-bikes. That’s a good start.
There has been a run on helmets due to the new laws and perhaps education will drive further fear into the populace so we;’ll see an uptick in use. A whole bunch of enforcement would certainly help, too.
And fortunately, the armies of scooter delivery folks that have sprung up in the last few years almost universally wear (branded) helmets, which you’d hope would be setting a good example. And you’d hope these delivery guys would also wear helmets as they drive their own scooters home from work, but that remains to be seen.
Where does all this leave us, besides being mighty careful on the streets of the worlds largest and most dynamic cities? Hopeful for the future, and nudging friends & family to be ever-careful, wear helmets, drive slower, and look to a long life free of accidents.
- Are you safe when driving or riding, with a helmet or seatbelt?
- Why do people take such well-known risks?
References & Resources
Originally published at https://mushnet.substack.com.