Thursday, December 17, 2009

Regulating The Silent Killers

A few months back, I had an infamous encounter with an electric scooter on the streets of Beijing. That fender bender led to a physical altercation and some bruises on my forearm that linger slightly even today. (The accompanying picture was taken about a week after the incident.)

So it was with a bit of personal interest that I read the news this week that China's State Standardization Administration intends to stiffen regulations pertaining to electric bikes. Contrary to what my wounds might make you think, my take is that tougher regulations on these vehicles is not, on balance, a good idea.

First off, what exactly is the government proposing to do? Two main things. Riders of electric bikes will have to apply for driver's licenses and pass requisite tests. And electric bikes will have to be ridden on streets, rather than on sidewalks (as is common in the current environment).

The upside of these regulations is obvious. Sidewalks in China are a mosh pit of pedestrians, bicycles, and electric bikes. In the midst of this chaos, Desi, the kids, and I were always especially on the lookout for these so-called "silent killers." Electric bikes are as quiet as their pedal-powered cousins, only they travel at several times the speed. Without warning, a scooter is right on top of you...Watch out!

In the end, though, the new regulations will not, in my estimation, make the sidewalks of China any less chaotic. With an estimated 120 million electric scooters in operation, enforcement is likely to be a joke. In a society known for its enforcement difficulties, I would think that keeping scooters off sidewalks is a practical impossibility.

Even if the new regulation were to work, ordering that many electric bikes to the streets is bound to create other safety and transportation problems. Riders of electric scooters would go from being the hunter to the hunted. My sense is that the inevitable accidents between scooters and big, heavy cars will be much worse than those involving pedestrians. Plus, China's roads are clogged up enough already.

China's transportation system is dangerous. There is no doubt about that. But there is, it has to be acknowledged, a method behind all of that chaos. All people in transit, whether on foot or bike or in motor vehicle, know that there is one basic mantra that governs everything...Keep a close eye on all the action around you and do not give an inch....ever! For most people most of the time, this system works just fine. Introducing piecemeal reforms like the one being proposed by the State Standardization Administration is likely to accomplish, if anything, nothing more than the creation of confusion in an environment where confusion can be deadly.



At 7:29 PM, Blogger The Balla Family said...

Newsflash...The State Standardization Administration has announced that it is, at least for the time being, putting the new electric bicycle regulations on the shelf. No word yet on how influential my editorial was in bringing about this change of heart...


At 10:01 AM, Blogger Leslie said...

Guess they don't have bike lanes, huh? I've only seen pictures of traffic in China and it doesn't seem like anyone adheres to any rules - pedestrians, cars, bikes - everyone's anywhere they can fit - sidewalk, street, you name it! What did you guys do when you had to go long distances?

At 11:53 AM, Blogger The Balla Family said...

Around Beijing (which consists of _very_ long distances), we used buses, subway, and taxis. Between cities, it was buses, overnight trains, and planes. Traveling between cities is actually much more fun than traveling within cities.

At 4:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.


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