One thing that baffles and terrifies foreigners living in China is the driving. It baffles us because we cannot see how anyone - driver, motorcyclist, cyclist or pedestrian can survive for a week without getting, at the very least, seriously injured. It terrifies us because crossing the street becomes an activity more dangerous than juggling chainsaws, and riding in a taxi leaves us deposited at our destination as a quivering nervous jelly, vowing that we will never ever set foot in any vehicle again.
Drivers seem to apply one very simple rule. Look only straight ahead, ignoring all other road users, and assume that everything else - on wheels or feet - will get out of the way.
They pull out of intersections without ever looking at the road.
They change lanes without warning, heading into gaps that you would swear weren't wide enough for a skateboard.
They hit the pedals as if they are mentally playing an especially complicated piano sonata rather than hauling round a couple of tons of metal.
They happily ignore traffic lights, one way systems and marked lanes.
They treat pedestrian crossing as being purely decorative.
In short they are terrifying.
And now I know why.
My girlfriend is taking driving lessons and the description of them answers all of those questions. The process of learning to drive in China goes something like this.
First you take a written test where you answer a set of one hundred questions from a bank of nine hundred. You read the book, learn the answers by rote memorisation and take the test. At this stage you don't need to have ever sat in a car.
Then you take lessons. She is taking lessons at a Government sponsored driving school. The lessons are one hour but there's a catch. You don't take individual lessons you take group lessons consisting of someone telling you how to drive. In your group's time slot there will be about ten people learning. In any given lesson you will have a maximum of about ten minutes actually sitting in a car. It may or may not be moving at the time. These "lessons" take place at the centre, on simulated roads with no other vehicles present, and not on roads which bear even a vague resemblance to actual driving conditions.
Once you have started taking lessons you can book for one of the pre-scheduled driving tests. This is a short test on the roads immediately around the driving centre which is in the middle of nowhere, miles away from the actual city.
Then there is another written test on road safety and then you get a license. With such a haphazard and inefficient way of learning and with no exposure to actual driving conditions before they let you on the road is it any wonder that for 2010 China recorded more than 65,000 road traffic fatalities. The wonder is that it isn't orders of magnitude higher.