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Drivers in the hot seat with new rules
By Zhang Kun (Shanghai Star)
Updated: 2004-09-14 10:07

China's new Traffic Law, issued in May, has aroused arguments nationwide between drivers and pedestrians.

One important principle which became a focus of heated discussion was that, when conflicts between car drivers and pedestrians arise, because the latter are more vulnerable they deserve greater protection from the law. Although it is difficult to really object to such a humane principle, the new regulations guided by have already started to cause problems.

A story spread widely on the Internet warned car drivers that there were people hidden at some street corners who would suddenly jump out in the path of passing cars to cause minor "accidents" in order to receive compensation.

Drivers insist such phenomena are quite common on suburban highways. There is even a saying that goes: "Go to the super- highway if you want to be rich."

According to the new Traffic Law, drivers are obliged to pay compensation to pedestrians in the case of injury or death, even if the accident is caused by the latter's wrongdoing, such as jaywalking.

"This new law isn't appropriate to China's situation at the moment," said A Ding, Shanghai Radio Station's host for a well-known traffic programme.

A Ding has been answering listener's questions about various traffic accidents and problems. He has heard frequent complaints from traffic policemen about the new law. "They can't criticize the law they enforce in public, but in private they find it difficult in enforce," Ding said.

"It is a good law, but it goes beyond the realities of the time," Ding said, "when people have little concern for traffic safety and jaywalk everywhere, the law only encourages them to continue with their recklessness."

Drivers are also annoyed by the law, arguing for instance that: "Pedestrians are human, but what about drivers? We are still flesh behind the iron shell of our cars."

One new driver complained to Ding that a cyclist rode through a redlight and struck his slowly-moving car. When the policeman approached, he asked the cyclist: "do you want compensation from the driver?"

Previously, it was commonly agreed that the compensation due for a traffic death is 100,000 yuan (US$12,000) per person, but the new law has increased the amount to 300,000 yuan (US$36,000).

In the case of injuries, the new law has abolished the limitation on compensation for the victim's lost earnings. Previously, the upper limit for such losses were 2,000 yuan per month. "Now as long as the injured person can produce proof of his monthly earnings, the driver has to pay the sum in full," Ding said.

A black joke spreading among drivers says that when you are unfortunate enough to knock someone down, the first thing you should do is to ask how much money they make each month. If the sum is too large, you had better get back behind the wheel and finish them off, since you will pay less compensation if they die.

Crucial insurance

None of these issues would pose really serious problems if an efficient insurance system existed. Automobile insurance is compulsory in China. But even though the law has increased the obligation on drivers, insurance companies have refused to cover the extra liability.

Insurance companies have stuck to the former policies, settled with drivers before the new law came in force. It would obviously be financially disastrous for them to cover the new and higher payouts.

A Ding explained the situation by comparing the handling of accidents under the old and new law.

Whenever a traffic accident happens, the traffic police make an investigation to find out whose fault it was.

Under the old law, the driver would pay half of the passenger's loss and medical costs if he had 50 per cent responsibility for the accident. But now, if the same thing happens, the driver has to pay all the losses and costs.

Furthermore, the level set for accident victim compensation by insurance companies is 100,000 yuan (US$12,000). With the new law, this amount only covers one third of the total compensation if death occurs.

But the insurance company only agrees to pay half of it, as laid down in the old law. This has made the new law's regulations impossible to put into practice, as the driver could not afford the compensation himself. The Ministry of Public Security cannot order the China Insurance Regulatory Commission to change companies' policies, which make conflict insoluble.

The new law has proposed the setting up of a fund to cover the medical expenses in the case of hit-and-run accidents, which have caused many deaths in past years. But where does the money come from, who takes charge? All these questions remain unanswered.

Chinese people still have little understanding of insurance. Drivers try to buy as little insurance as possible. Some manage to avoid insurance payments to cover the cost of compensating accident victims. "People are often worried about what they would do if they were hit by a car," Ding said, "but few really thinks about what they could be faced with if they hit someone in their car."

Beijing is holding public hearings about the detailed regulations under the new Traffic Law. Over 80 per cent of Beijing citizens believe that pedestrians should take responsibility for their own wrongdoing.

Shanghai doesn't have any special municipal traffic regulations of its own. The city's traffic police bureau declined to comment on the new law, only saying that very different issues can arise in different cases.

But A Ding, who enjoys a high reputation among drivers and policemen, believes that at the present moment, it would be better to stick to the old traffic law, which was issued in 1988. "It has matured over 10 years of practice. And I have heard in some less-developed place, they are still following the old law."

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