How to: avoid seat belt fines while still unnecessarily risking your life in Chinese traffic

In China we usually couldn’t wear seat belts even if we wanted to. Taxi drivers have them tucked into the seats to get them out of the way, or they’re dirty and hard to pull out from lack of use. But recently I’ve noticed a lot of taxi drivers doing this:

They’ve started wearing the seat belt without clicking it into place. Every time I ask them they tell me how much money and how many points they’ll lose if a traffic camera catches them without a seat belt (something like 6 points and a few hundred 元 — I forget exactly but it’s steep).

Thoughts like: “I drive all day every day, maybe wearing this thing properly would be worth it” or “Since I’m pulling this thing over my lap anyway, I might as well click it into place and benefit” apparently haven’t crossed anyone’s mind. But how could they not?

Sure, it could just be that they don’t like feeling restricted. But I have a theory:* Chinese attitudes toward laws are different because law means something different here. And this seat belt behaviour at least partially reflects that. (*Yes, I’m making most of this up.)

Rule of law, rule by law & human nature

For North Americans, laws are for us, for the individual. It’s rule of law — at least in our heads. Our laws (in theory, ideally) exist to create equality, protect the common people from the powerful and maximize individual self-determination. Of course the reality differs greatly from the ideal, but the ideal exists and it’s on that basis that we (imagine that we) fight for, abide by or disobey laws, when we aren’t just being rebellious and sticking it to authority out of principle. Disobeying a good law or respecting a bad one runs counter to some of our deepest cultural ideals.

But in China, it’s rule by law. Laws are tools arbitrarily used by the rulers to control the masses; the average individual’s enhancement is not really part of the theoretical equation. For thousands of years. Our Western ideals are not part of China’s cultural DNA, even subconsciously. Instead there’s a pragmatic, power-calculating default posture: “What will happen if I don’t obey?” Compliance is just about avoiding fines from a newly-enforced law that wasn’t created with your well-being in mind. So a seat belt law, stiffly enforced to generate better traffic stats? Sure they’ll do what’s necessary to avoid the fines without stopping to imagine the personal benefit of the law itself, even if gaining that benefit only requires a split-second more effort. When laws aren’t for you, the idea that a new regulation might include a personal benefit doesn’t automatically spring to mind.

But let’s be clear: the cultural contrast I’m drawing here is in degree of tendency. When it comes to cross-cultural experience and behaviour differences, our differences are significant, but so is our common humanity.** People are people: take away the penalties and see how much North Americans respect the concept of rule of law, how much our behaviour is guided by principles! But Westerners’ are still significantly influenced by our cultural ideals and experience involving rule of law, ideals and experience that Mainland Chinese in general do not have. Significantly different historical-cultural influences lean on our human nature, resulting in different default behaviour.

At least that’s my theory. I know I’m stretching it. :) But I’m going to start asking drivers directly anyway, just for fun.

Our own Chinese traffic adventures, like taking video while pedaling one-handed through rush hour traffic in Tianjin, can be found here:

**P.S. – IMO, our differences are more profound than people typically realize. But so is what we have in common. IOW, we’re both more different and more similar than people usually imagine. (Internet acronyms FTW!)

14 thoughts on “How to: avoid seat belt fines while still unnecessarily risking your life in Chinese traffic”

  1. I’ve always found it so hard to comprehend why people don’t wear seat belts, be that in China or in Western countries, but what you say makes sense. The government is controlling in China so maybe the people don’t realise that seat belts really are for their own benefit.

    There are a lot of TV shows in the UK about police men and they often pull people over for not wearing a seatbelt. (Usually they don’t have insurance or a license either) It will significantly reduce the risk of getting seriously injured in a crash and I can’t see a logical reason to not wear it! Maybe the government in China need to make this more obvious…unless they don’t really care that much?

    1. When I went into the Chinese DMV and took my driving test, they sure did make a big deal about the seriousness of seatbelts. There was a big screen playing an endless loop of horrendous car crashes in the lobby.

      Good article. One question, though: you JUST noticed this? It’s been happening as long as I’ve been in China (7 years living in three different cities). What’s surprised me more was seeing taxi drivers in Xi’an during Spring Festival actually click them in AND require passengers to at least pull them across their laps because of a campaign in which police were actually holding the drivers responsible for everyone in their cars. Seemed like a helpful idea. One driver even said that pulling the belt across isn’t enough. You need to plug it in (others didn’t).

      1. I only noticed in Qingdao in the last couple weeks. Never saw it in Tianijn. Rules might be made, but local enforcement is always spotty. They have compaigns, and they fear the rules for a short time. They were terrified of red and yellow lights earlier this year, but I’ve seen some violators recently and never would have a fw months ago.

  2. Well, if I remember right in North America people haven’t been routinely wearing seat belts for that long. It took a lot of education and tickets before it caught on. I’m sure the Chinese realize what they’re for, they probably just don’t bother to think about it.

    Or maybe it’s just a weird human herd-mentality thing. For example, every expat in Beijing, Tianjin and other cities knows the air is horrible — their smart phone apps give them hourly recommendations to wear masks. But over four years in Tianjin I only ever saw ONE foreigner wear a mask, even though we all had the correct info.

  3. Interesting thoughts – appreciate your perspective. I’ve been reflecting lately on how people are slowly respecting smoking bans, and seeing a change in attitude there. I really wish there was more publicity about the benefits of seatbelts (and dangers of not wearing them); I think that could precipitate a lifesaving change in attitude.

  4. You are reaching way too much. They don’t click their seat belts in for the same reason they didnt wear them at all before they started being punished. They have the minds of children. That simple.

  5. I appreciate your balanced approach and your attitude (i.e., not claiming that you have every aspect of Chinese culture completely deciphered). One experience I had shed a little light on this topic for me: I was discussing traffic laws with a local friend and suddenly my friend spoke up and said, “You misunderstand. There are no traffic *laws* only traffic *rules* and *regulations* and they are not the same.” So in my friend’s thinking there was a significant difference to disobeying a rule or regulation and a law. Perhaps Westerners view all breaking of laws (from jaywalking to littering to theft) as more or less relevant whereas our local friends don’t necessarily share that view. And I must admit, I have benefited from adopting that approach a number of times.

    1. Interesting you bring up that distinction b/w “laws” and “regulations”, because just today I found an article making the same distinction: “there are no laws that either protect (or prohibit) religion; there are only regulations designed to supervise and manage religion.”Draft Proposal for a Law of Religion Unveiled

      Maybe I should have gone with that law/regulation distinction and had a much clearer post…

      Re: “benefit[ting] from adopting that approach a number of times.” — I totally hear ya. :)

  6. I hope you don’t mind if I give a couple of stories!

    (1) When I was in Taiwan about 15 years ago, I was told that they had just changed their laws on seatbelts, and they were now required to wear them on the motorway (with heavy fines, etc, for not doing so). However, they did not have to wear them while driving off the motorways. Local Taiwanese who I was with at the time used to put on their seatbelts on the on-ramps to motorways, then take them off again on the off-ramps. (At the time, I was a bit younger and a bit sillier, and I copied them with the seatbelts. I think at the time I was trying to be culturally sensitive, or whatever, and fit in with what they were doing.)

    I mention this just to say that I assume that Taiwan is/was similar to the Mainland. I have no idea how it is now, as I have not been there lately.

    (2) A couple of days ago the New Zealand news reported on a coroner’s report. In brief, 16 US university students were holidaying in NZ, and travelling in two vehicles. One of the drivers lost control of his vehicle and it rolled four times. Four of the students were not wearing seatbelts, and they were thrown from the vehicle. Three died and one suffered serious injuries. The others, who were all wearing seatbelts, survived. The coroner said that had these four people been wearing seatbelts then they would have survived and not been seriously injured. The driver of the vehicle had been reminding his passengers to put the seatbelts on, but they chose not to.

    This type of story is not uncommon in NZ newspapers. The events themselves don’t happen very often, but when they do they are reported on very prominently. The same goes for stories about life-jackets in boats, booster car-seats for children, drink-driving, and so on.

    I am wondering out loud if the difference that Joel discusses here is also to do with whether and how the media reports these types of stories.

    I get the impression that NZ (and I assume other Western countries too) newspapers aim to hammer home the importance of this sort of personal safety thing. They don’t talk about laws or regulations; they tell stories about personal, individual deaths. I may be wrong (my Chinese is very bad), but I don’t think these sorts of stories are reported (as much?) in Chinese newspapers. Maybe in China there is just not enough everyday storytelling “propaganda” that emphasises how this is personal and individual. The media hasn’t been able to make a connection between the reader and the victim, such that the reader thinks “that could have been me or my loved ones”.

    So, if the educational message in the media is clumsy in its presentation, then it does make sense to me that Chinese see these sorts of intrusions into their personal comfort and freedom as authoritarian control.

    But is this a deep cultural difference, or is it the same in any society, if the underlying educational message doesn’t get through?

    A few years ago it was very fashionable in New Zealand to accuse the government of being a “nanny state”, because it was enacting laws to restrict people for their own good (anti-smacking-children, anti-smoking, etc). It seems like at the time New Zealanders got sick of too many of these types of laws, and consequently there was a government change at the next election. The message that these were good things to protect people hadn’t got through to the population.

    Having said all that, I do agree that it is easier to get the message though in NZ than it is in China. New Zealanders are more likely to initially trust the intentions of lawmakers, so see the laws as for them. China does have a problem with trust.

    (PS, it is always very amusing to observe aeroplane-seatbelt culture, when landing in different countries.)

    1. I’ve asked several drivers directly since writing this, and the real reason that I hinted at seems to be true: they just don’t like feeling restricted. But it gave me such a fun springboard into the rule of law vs. rule by law thing that I couldn’t resist.

      American college students are children; adolescence basically lasts until you’re 30 now (ha, and sometimes longer for China expats!). Pretty sure I’m guilty of some airplane seatbelt infractions. I suppose Western countries went through a similar seat-belt adjustment? In Canada we had to do it with bike helmets, too, and the emphasis was on your personal safety (I still remember the poster from elementary school of a bike helmet on a watermelon — we didn’t want to wear helmets, but imagining my brains like a busted watermelon was effective).

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