I vividly remember taking my driver's test when I was 16 years old. Foster, my driving instructer; who, ironically, I would share many, many alcoholic beverages with in the coming years in my buddy Sully's basement; left me with his car for the morning, and I passed without incident. To that point, it was one of my proudest achievements. I couldn't wait to pile into the family station wagon with all of my friends and cruise the hopping mad suburban streets of Oakville, ON, impressing girls with our mobility while attempting to somehow relive the scenes of a latter-day American Graffiti. And how did I celebrate this glorious newfound freedom? By taking the bus back home, because nobody came to pick me up.
In any event, I vividly remember how terrifying it was trying to learn how to drive. As you might imagine, my parents had completely opposite schools of thought where driving instruction was concerned. My mom would take me out in the family sation wagon; an '81 Buick Electra; and would basically have a heart attack at every turn, giving terified warnings of potential hazards miles in advance and screaming for me to keep my eyes on the road to the point where I'd eventually just pull over and let her drive... My dad, on the other hand, would get in the passenger seat of his 1980 VW Rabbit that had neither 1st gear, 5th gear, nor Reverse, and would basically crank the radio and fall asleep, leaving me struggle with stalling the car at every stop light... There was also the one time he famously made me the designated driver while having had a few too many drinks at my grandparents' place, but that's another blog entry altogether (to be filed under the illegal-things-we-did-while-in-the-care-of-my-parents category).
But none of the stories I've ever come across with regards to driving even come close to what Peter Hessler encounters in China.
This is one of my favourite articles of all-time, and it chronicles one American's experiences with the fledgling culture of cars in the far east. It is hysterical, informative, and terrifying, all at the same time. I simply can't get enough of the ways in which the car rental agencies in China operate, as evidenced in the following exchange:
...Mr. Liu inspected the Jetta and noted cheefully that the plastic cover for the right signal light had been smashed. He asked what I had hit.
"A dog," I said.
"Gou mei wenti?" he said. "The dog didn't have a problem, did it?"
"The dog had a problem," I said. "It died."
Mr. Liu's smile got bigger. "Did you eat it?"
And I'm not sure what is more frightening: the fact that as of the time of this article's publication (November, 2007), China had approximately 28 automobiles for every 1,000 people (approximately the same rate the U.S. had in 1915) and that that number will only continue to increase with time (the implications for global oil consumption could be staggering); or that Hessler recounts an episode where he attends a driving school which is forced to cancel their afternoon lesson after the entire class; including the instructor; gets completely wasted at lunch.
Basically, all you need to know is that, despite the fact that China has only 3% of the world's vehicles, that same country accounts for 21% of the world's traffic fatalities... And this piece explains exactly why.
By Peter Hessler