Reasons to be a Fearful Pedestrian in China

A chaotic intersection in Chongqing

Jenny’s excellent post on being a pedestrian in Yubei District inspired me to think a bit more about the legal basis for our observations about pedestrians in China. I have noticed over the last 2 weeks that Chinese pedestrians always yield to cars even when they are using crosswalks and have a green walk light. They don’t seem irritated or angry at having to yield, but instead appear fearful and I’ve seen many pedestrians run across the crosswalk. This was surprising to me given how daring they seem to be about entering the roadway (as Jenny points out). My experiences travelling to similarly traffic intensive places, particularly Delhi, I am usually struck by how confident pedestrians are that cars will avoid hitting them at all costs regardless of when and how they cross. A quick Google search turned up the following paragraph from Factsanddetails.com. If it is accurate, it does clarify the situation quite a bit…

Crowds often gather around accidents out of curiosity and to ensure justice is served. When a pedestrian is killed by a car the driver faces a maximum liability that varies from about $4,100 in rural Shaanxi to more than $37,000 in Shanghai. When a person is merely injured there is no such cap. These liability rules have created some twisted incentives such as drivers hitting pedestrians and then running over them in an effort to kill them so they can get out of paying hospital and compensation costs.

So even in Shanghai, in many ways the most progressive of China’s megacities, you can kill a pedestrian for $37,000. While this seems like a lot of money, and it is for the common Chinese citizen, it happens to be the same price as a diamond tiara in Chongqing’s Jiefangbei shopping area, and it was by no means the most expensive piece of jewelry in the case. My point in making this comparison is that it is likely not beyond the means of many of the countries wealthy elite. But before I get too critical of the Chinese system, let’s take a quick look at Oregon law…

The Willamette Pedestrian Coalition has produced an excellent legal guide for pedestrian rights in Oregon that all pedestrians should read in full. I have excerpted a few important paragraphs that pertain to this topic.

Collisions that cause serious injuries or death are often caused by underinsured or uninsured drivers who will never be forced to pay full compensation for damages to the persons they hurt. Oregon’s minimum automobile liability insurance amount of $25,000 creates about enough insurance for a two day hospital stay; this amount is completely inade­quate for most serious injuries.

So in China, if you injure a pedestrian, there is legally no limit to your liability for the costs associated with the injuries you cause, but in Oregon, you only have to pay for 2 days worth of medical treatment! However, if you kill a pedestrian in the US, the repercussions are potentially much more serious.

The Oregon law on the books that creates a crime for criminally negligent driving applies only when it causes a death and the driver: “Fails to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the result will occur or that the circumstance exists. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that the failure to be aware of it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation. ORS 161.085(10)” [definition of criminal negligence]. This crime of “Criminally Negligent Homicide” (located at ORS 163.145) is a Class B felony with a maximum sentence of 10 years and a maximum fine of $250,000.

The key word is “potentially” more serious…

The statutory requirement for ‘a gross deviation of the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation” is sometimes called “Gross Negligence” and is significantly harder to prove than “regular negligence”. The additional requirement of a “gross deviation” creates a difficult burden for a prosecuting attorney before a jury in most death cases because they usually involve merely thoughtless driving behavior such as drifting over the fog line, failing to yield right of way, turning left into the path of a pedestrian, or being momentarily distracted by a barking dog or cell phone conversation, or failing to properly gauge the distance between the motor vehicle and a pedestrian.

My conclusion from this limited analysis is that the Chinese system possesses some features that appear better than the US system (unlimited medical damages in the case of injury), as well as some features that are more limited (in the case of fatalities). As for many laws in the US, whether an individual benefits from the full application of the law depends in large part on the quality of their legal representation and even a basic understanding of their rights as a pedestrian. Walkers beware! (And go join the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition!)

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One thought on “Reasons to be a Fearful Pedestrian in China

  1. Colin Rowan says:

    Derek, thanks to you and Jenny for giving great overviews of being a pedestrian in Chinese cities. A constant topic here in Beijing is the way drivers operate and the travails of being a pedestrian. Also, thanks for noting that in the US repercussions are _potentially_ greater. Most often careless and reckless driving that results in pedestrian injury or death is just treated as ‘accidents.’ Like it is the cost of not being able to drive.

    Oregon’s Vulnerable User Law is poorly used as seen recently: http://bikeportland.org/2012/07/17/should-hwy-101-collision-have-trigged-vulnerable-roadway-users-law-74755
    Streetsblog gruesomely tracks the disproportionate number of vehicular homicides to prosecutions in the five boroughs: http://streetsblog.net/2012/07/18/when-vulnerable-user-laws-go-unenforced/

    We all have a long way to go…

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