In an article in the December issue of the Atlantic, which is published abnormally late for reasons I don't fully grasp, I mention that the traffic-death rate per mile driven is roughly ten times higher in China than in North America. Nothing so shocking about that:
as Gwynne Dyer has pointed out, it's typical of societies where almost everyone on the road is a first-generation driver. No one grew up hearing lectures about the risks of reckless teen-aged driving. Not many people grew up (as I did) with family histories shaped and harmed by deaths in car crashes -- and therefore aware of the harm that cars could do. (Of course they had first-hand experience with many other sources of tragedy.)
And it appears to me that very few people on the road in Shanghai have been exposed to driver's-ed of any sort. Thus I read with a sense of suspicions-confirmed this passage from Geling Yan's wonderful recent novel The Banquet Bug. It concerns a laborer recently arrived from the provinces, and his jaded Beijing-savvy female advisor, Happy:
"Ever drive a car?"
"I used to drive a tractor back home."
She laughs, squeezing his hand a couple of times.... "Okay, start the tractor now. Just drive fast, honk loud, curse whoever is in your way," Happy says. "Go. Good. Change the gear. Hey, not bad. Faster. See, I'm not even putting on my seat belt. If we crash, I die with you. What are you afraid of? Faster. Honk. More."
Banquet Bug really is an impressive piece of work. Like a funnier version -- OK, a funny version - of a Dreiser novel like Sister Carrie or An American Tragedy, or even a social-reform potboiler like The Jungle, in creating individual stories that illustrate huge historic shifts. In those other cases, America's industrialization and urbanization. In this case, China's.
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