BEIJING - About 20 years ago, owning a car was only a dream to many Chinese. Nowadays when more people have their own cars, the "dream" has become a "nightmare".
Gu Qingyang, post office chief of Luoning county of Central China's Henan province, was arrested after he, under the influence of alcohol, hit five teenagers on Dec 5 before trying to escape.
The incident soon sparked a new round of public outrage after a flurry of traffic accidents aroused people's concern about road safety.
"As cars become popularized, the development of a social ethic lags behind," he explained, calling for civilized driving.
China had 199 million motor vehicles on its roads as of the end of September, including 85 million cars, according to the Traffic Management Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security.
The number of cars is soaring at an astonishing rate. In November, about 1.28 million passenger vehicles were sold in China, up 27 percent from the corresponding period last year.
On the other hand, violations of traffic regulations are frequent, with the most extreme cases being speeding, drunk driving and hit-and-run accidents.
A drunk 22-year-old hit-and-run driver gained nationwide notoriety by shouting "Sue me if you dare, my father is Li Gang". The sentence became so popular that netizens worked it into poetry and doggerel.
In October, a college student in Xi'an of Shaanxi province was condemned and cursed after he killed a woman he hit with a car for fear that this "peasant woman would be hard to deal with".
The latest case was also on Dec 5, when a man in a police uniform hit a retired doctor with his red sedan in Changchun, capital of northeastern Jilin province. Instead of bringing her to a hospital, he then assaulted her, shouting, "I have money. I give money if I kill you." Hundreds of local residents surrounded him so he could not run away. A furious man even dropped a box of beverages from a building onto his car.
The irresponsibility of drivers makes the work of traffic police more difficult.
Bao Baode has been working as a traffic police officer in Hohhot, capital of Inner Mongolia, for some 20 years.
"In the past three years, although more people could afford a car, their legal awareness and moral standards were not high enough," he said.
Bao recalled that once when he was trying to stop a car as it jumped a red light, the driver suddenly sped up. Bao's colleague was hit and injured.
The case is by no means exceptional. In 2008, a police officer was hailed as the "coolest traffic policeman" as he stood in front of a car to stop it while the latter threatened for several times to hit him and run away.
Bao noted that a lack of traffic police officers could be a reason for the prevalence of traffic violations, and added that leniency in punishment was another reason.
The sentence for Hu Bin, who had been under fierce criticism for killing a pedestrian while drag racing in East China's Hangzhou city, triggered debate in 2009. He drove at speeds from 84 km to 101 km per hour on a downtown road with a speed limit of 50 km per hour, but was only sentenced to three years in jail on charges of vehicular manslaughter.
David Tool from the United States has been living in Beijing as an English teacher for 12 years. He said that in the US there were police everywhere who were very polite, but strict.
"Even a small violation could cost you a lot of money," he said, adding that China should be stricter with punishments.
Ma Huaide, vice president of China University of Political Sciences and Law, believed that the problem lay with lax law enforcement.
"After a serious accident, if one driver manages to get away with it, he would set a bad example to many others," he said.
As a result, Ma said, more people would come to believe that after causing an accident, if you can give your victim a high compensation or serve time in jail for a short term, at most, the incident is over.
"In some western countries, private cars have been popularized for more than a hundred years. Cars there were just tools to people," said Wang Hong, a lawyer. "But in China," he said, "owning a car was still seen by many people as a symbol of social status."
Wu Zhongmin, a professor at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, especially warned the privileged class to behave themselves. Although drivers from privileged classes were not the only ones involved in serious road accidents, it was easier for them to attract public attention, he said.
Wang Wei, a sociologist with the Chinese Academy of Governance, believes that the anger and denouncement of netizens following each accident shows growth in their social awareness and sense of justice.
On Nov 28, a college student was killed in a road accident and the driver fled. Hundreds of people surrounded the student to protect her body until the police came.
"Hopefully, the force of ordinary people could boost civilized driving," Wang said.