BEIJING // Last year, China's roads claimed about 68,000 lives, a death toll equivalent to a full Airbus A380 superjumbo crashing every three days. Although the total number of fatalities is startling, road safety campaigners say what is also remarkable is the extent to which the death toll has fallen as car use has increased on the back of economic growth.
Last year, while the number of passenger vehicles on China's roads rose almost 10 per cent to 187 million, the number of deaths dropped nearly 10 per cent. Eight years ago, more than 109,000 people died in road accidents in the country, and there have been significant reductions most years since then, to the extent that in 2006 India overtook China to become the country with the most road deaths annually, based on official figures. There are concerns, however, that there could be an under-reporting of fatalities.
Factors such as improvements in the quality of roads and better enforcement of safety legislation could have helped reduce deaths, and have achieved similar reductions in other countries even as vehicle numbers have risen. Some experts say it is unlikely the total number of accidents would also have fallen as car numbers increased, although, according to official figures, the total number of road crashes dropped to 238,000 last year from 667,000 in 2003.
"Fatalities could reduce because in the road traffic system, especially the urban roads, the speed will be slower and there will be more minor crashes and less serious crashes, but because there are more cars, there's more conflicts and more crashes" expected in total, said Ann Yuan, China country manager for the Global Road Safety Partnership, a programme sponsored by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
"The international road traffic professionals feel there's a lot of under-reporting." Ms Yuan said unsafe behaviour such as speeding, driving while drunk and not wearing a seatbelt or a helmet (for motorbike riders) were contributing factors to the number of accidents. "It's very difficult for the ordinary road users to be aware of the risks they're facing," she said. "But although education is important, it's also important to improve the road design and signage, to separate bicycles and pedestrians from cars and to enhance law enforcement."
A Global Road Safety Partnership survey in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region found that among more than 10,000 drivers intercepted, 6.8 per cent had been drinking. John Zeng, a senior automotive analyst at the Asian Automotive Forecast Service, said Chinese motorists drove "quite aggressively", typically changing lanes without signalling. "In terms of driving behaviour, I think China is still at the very early stage," he said. "It's like Japan in the 1960s. We're still in the so-called traffic war."
The authorities are taking action. This year, the minister of public security, Meng Jianzhu, said punishments for drunk drivers would probably increase, including criminal charges, even if no one had been hurt in an accident. To shock motorists, the authorities have put up graphic billboards showing the aftermath of crashes, including one that shows Britain's Diana, the princess of Wales, lying fatally injured in a Mercedes after a crash in Paris in 1997.
Ms Yuan said road safety is now considered when roads are designed so, rather than making changes to accident blackspots, the authorities try to ensure roads are safer from the start. Before-and-after studies carried out when the organisation held initiatives to highlight the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol, and to improve the safety of junctions for vulnerable road users such as cyclists, indicated it was possible to make motorists adhere more clearly to the rules.
In addition, Chinese carmakers have reason to take safety more seriously. Four years ago, the manufacturer Brilliance aborted plans to import its BS6 saloon into western Europe after the car rated only one out of five stars in a crash test, a result branded "terrible" by Auto Express magazine. It had been the first Chinese saloon to go on sale in Europe. However, in 2006 China launched a branch of the New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP), which crash tests new vehicles and issues safety ratings, following similar organisations in the United States, Europe and Australia.
"C-NCAP has helped the local industry change its mindset," Mr Zeng said. "If you look at the main [Chinese] manufacturers like Geely and Great Wall, to meet the C-NCAP standards has been the first priority for their design." Safety on the roads could be enhanced by better co-ordination between government ministries and improvements to the emergency response system so more victims were treated in the crucial first 30 minutes after a crash, according to Ms Yuan. For example, regularly spaced ambulance stations to reach accidents quickly were vital, she said.
"It took over 40 years for the road safety advanced countries like the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands and Australia to reach their current status. There are lessons learnt, so I hope less time will be used to make China strong in road safety," she said. "The Chinese government is paying more attention to road safety and many measures have been taken to improve the situation." The Beijing Traffic Management Administration said it was too busy for an interview.