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Drive and Pay: Chinese Traffic Law

Nov
21
2006

Signage is spotty, and rules do not always apply, but I have one guiding principle to parking in downtown Beijing: If there’s no meter maid (or man) asking for money, then don’t.

Last week, I gambled against that rule and I lost. Whap. I returned to my car to find a white slip affixed smack-dab to the center of driver’s side window so I could feel the moment when the traffic cop stuck it on. Blue strokes of Chinese filled in the blanks on the top half of the slip and on the bottom, printed green type read as follows:

“At the above-noted time and place, there existed an offense by the vehicle that violated the regulation of stopping and parking (code 301039). The traffic management department of the public security organ will make record of this in the traffic violations data system. The driver of the vehicle must go to the location specified by the notice within three days to accept disposal.” (my translation)

A faintly applied red stamp gave an address.

Big Brother no longer broods over most facets of life in China. The roads, both concrete and virtual, are a big exception. In the past few years, the country has with installed hidden cameras over most major highways and big-city intersections. Besides foiling emergencies and feeding TV crime shows, the eyes in the sky are meant to spot you every time you make an illegal U-turn, loiter in a bus lane, or straddle an unbroken lane marker. Many of these violations will cost you the equivalent of $25, and two to three penalty points. Collect 12 points within a year and your license is supposed to be revoked. You have to go to remedial driving school for a week to get a new one. Surpass the speed limit by 50 percent and an automatic suspension awaits. To keep a running tab on your record, you can go online.

The clandestine new method of refereeing the roads, in and of itself, has not been all that controversial. At not least not on the order of privacy infringement issues in the States, or instant replay in the National Football League. The swelling ranks of people getting behind the wheel in Beijing, whether privileged or poor, drive with a wanderlust sense of entitlement. The roads are crooked puzzles. One look and you realize that electronic surveillance is, and for decades to come will be, a necessary evil. Evil, but equal, right?

Not exactly. Like a lot of things here today, the problem is not the hardware but the software. The legal mechanisms in place pass muster, but official enforcement is still a mess.
So I learned the last time I got a parking ticket.

It happened early this year. I got slapped with a notice directing me to a police precinct a mile and a half away. It took me an hour to find. And when at last I entered the desolate courtyard of the station and asked if it was the place to pay my fine, the duty officers there appeared startled to see. One of them took my identification and my parking slip and typed them into his computer machine. Then, however, he said something I didn’t expect to hear.

“Are you sure you want to pay this now?”

“You mean I have a choice?”

He showed me my previous record on the screen. It turned out that I had three speeding tickets in the previous few weeks. Two were at different overpasses within two kilometres and two minutes of each other, which I surely would have challenged. But all of the sudden, I didn’t quite feel as pressing a need:

“If you pay these now, you’re your license will be nullified immediately.”

“But I don’t have to?”

“No, of course you don’t have to.”

In fact, unless a traffic cop was for some reason to stop me on the road after I’d exceeded my alloted points – increasingly unlikely, given the current dependence on cameras – I would not be forced to pay up until the next time I took the vehicle in for inspection to renew my license plates. That’s required only once every two years.
I was beginning to understand. In practice, enforcement is designed not to keep violators off the road, but to keep them on the roads as long as possible. And meantime, milk them for penalties. Or worst-case scenario, allow them back after an expensive week of school. How else would all these people be able to keep on driving like maniacs?

Actually, the local media already has caught on to this racket. It was brought to light last year by the case of a vegetable peddler named Du Baoliang. Last May, on a visit to the traffic bureau, Du was somewhat shocked to learn that he had driven his truck past the same no-entry sign 105 times in ten months just to get to his vegetable stall. Without his knowing it, he had racked up 210 points and 10,500 yuan in fees (then about $1300). Du, a rural migrant who was under-educated and probably quite scared about the potential consequences, actually paid his fee within a week. He thereby forfeited a whole year’s earnings. But then newspapers and lawyers caught wind of his story. Du was emboldened, and sued the Beijing traffic bureau to return his money. He was not alone. Reports emerged of another driver in Beijing who committed 87 violations at one intersection, also without ever being notified.

The headlines noted, briefly, that people were angry. The scandal forced the chief of the Beijing Traffic Administration Bureau to proclaim that the bureau was reforming its ways. The city began to notify drivers of each automatically recorded violation by post (or at least they tried).

Yet here I was at the police station months later, being offered a better way out: Go ahead. Keep on driving. Keep on breaking the law. More money for us.

Say I was in the U.S. and fighting to keep my license. I’d retain a lawyer and go before a judge and with any luck, I’d pay my fine and have my points wiped out.

In China, it’s different. You find a friend of a traffic cop to go before that friend and the chances are high that you can achieve the same results.

For me, that friend turned out to be the family mechanic. He didn’t even have to pay up-front. Minutes after the transaction was initiated, he called from just outside the traffic bureau. “Go online and check to make sure your points are erased.” They were.

Increasingly, studies show, Chinese police forces count on traffic fines to fund their largesse. Hidden cameras ensure that the proceeds will keep on growing. But electronic enforcement also makes corruption a trickier gambit. And this, one can only assume, is why these little games are played. Don’t pay at the front counter, I was essentially told, but around the back.

Now five days have passed since my latest parking ticket. I have yet to make it over to the police station to “accept disposal” of the matter. Big Brother is watching. But he’ll happily wait.

Share  Posted by jansfield at 3:37 AM | Permalink

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