Seatbelts in China

These days I am pretty particular about wearing a seatbelt when I sit in the front of a car. I got completely out of the habit in my first year here (2004). Back then many cabs simply did not HAVE seatbelts. Not functional ones, anyway. I would automatically reach over my shoulder to grab a seatbelt, only to find there was no place to click it into, or that the latch was broken. The driver would laugh at me, bewildered as to why I would bother putting a seatbelt on. I tried to explain that in Australia everyone wears seatbelts, to more laughter. To be fair, my Chinese was much more halting back then, but I’m not sure that was the only problem in communication.

When the new fleet of taxis was introduced in 2006 many did have seatbelts (in the front, anyway – the back ones were often tucked out of reach behind covers) but by then I was lazy. Then I moved to Langfang where many of the black cab drivers I used seemed insulted when I used a seatbelt, as if it meant I didn’t trust their driving skills. My worst seatbelt moment was in 2009, travelling with my parents in Yunnan province. We hired a driver to take us from Lijiang to Tiger Leaping Gorge; he told me I didn’t need to wear a seatbelt because I was fat. (I didn’t translate that comment to my parents immediately!)

Now, as I said, I am very much back in the habit of belting up, at least when I travel in the front seat. It still provokes conversations with drivers, but I am no longer bothered by this – and quite happily explain why they should also wear seatbelts. This usually leads to a discussion of penalties – the only thing that prompts Chinese drivers (particularly the professionals) to change behaviour. Of course, most of the taxi drivers have work arounds. They may click the belt into place, but then put the sash behind their back so it won’t bother them. Or, more common, put a bulldog clip on the belt up at the top to hold it in place without needing to latch it – the belt can be laid across the body for the benefit of traffic cameras or watching police without the discomfort of actually wearing it.

Today in a black cab the driver needed to move a little shelf thing between the seats so I could reach the latch. He was surprised at my insistence on wearing a seatbelt. As always, I said that in Australia everyone wears seatbelts, and that if caught without a seatbelt a driver can lose one point from their license. He said that in China it is the same. (China and Australia both have 12 point license systems). This led into a discussion of different aspects of driving and demerits.

When I mentioned double demerits on holidays, he said that the point demerits are too high in China. Running a red light, for example, incurs 6 demerits. He pointed out that if double demerits were used as well, running a red light would be enough to lose a license. He gestured to a traffic light we were approaching and said that he was caught on the camera running the light – he lost 6 points and was fined 200 RMB ($30) – about a tenth of the equivalent fine in Australia.

He asked if speeding was a problem in Australia. I said yes, speeding and drink driving were probably the most common problems on Australian roads. He said that drink driving used to be a huge problem in Beijing, but that it is less so now – people are learning. The only accident I was ever in was caused by a car full of drunk young men. Although since then I’ve seen several RBTs (random breath tests). I saw a few on the highway south to Langfang back when I lived there. Most recently a friend and I went through one on a back road – I presume trying to catch drivers avoiding the main roads. Seemed quite sneaky! Not at all what I would have expected.

Now that I’m living in an area with few real taxis, I am spending a lot of time in black cabs again – so I’m sure I’ll have more stories for you again soon…

I recently heard about a new fad for avoiding seatbelt use. Many newer cars have a beeping alarm when the front seatbelts are not worn. I’ve been in cars with many drivers who happily drive along for an hour or more seemingly ignoring the constant pinging noise. Not to worry – you can now get around this annoying noise! With little plugs, inserted into the seatbelt plug to fool the car into believing the seatbelt is being worn. Sigh. (Photos are from a Chinese website calling for these to be banned).



12 thoughts on “Seatbelts in China

  1. I know it’s not smart, but after living in Beijing for a few years I’ve gotten into the habit of not wearing a seatbelt. I feel like a hypocrite because I used to lecture my sister in the US about wearing one.


  2. I was a stickler for seatbelts in Australia but it only took a few months in China, where they were rarely available and no one cared anyway, to do away with it. I’m a little embarrassed it took me so many years to change my ways. I did finally acknowledge that I was being an idiot – the reasons to wear seatbelts are the same in both countries. It’s more important to be safe – even at the cost of explaining why I bother to Every. Single. Driver. And honestly, it only took a month or two for the habit to become so ingrained again that I do it without thinking.

  3. I’ve written on this topic many times since I started blogging. It’s surprising the attitude to towards wearing the seat belt that hasn’t really changed in over ten years since I’ve been in China. All it takes is a decent ad campaign to change but the authorities don’t seem too bothered by it.

    I used to joke that it was its way of managing the huge Chinese population, but the reality is, I do not understand it. It’s not like smoking. I understand the reluctance to tell the Chinese that smoking kills, because there are tobacco tax revenues at stake. For seat belts, I am not sure what the negative side would be of getting people to wear them.

    And as you mentioned, the lengths people go to to avoid wearing them is insane. I cannot find it now but I took a photo of one taxi driver in Beijing who had attached some type of weight to the end of his seat belt so it could rest across his torso giving the APPEARANCE of being worn, without actually providing the protection. So he gets all the discomfort but none of the benefits. As you say, why not just wear the thing. Perhaps it’s the thrill of knowing he’s got one over the authorities. Yes, that’ll teach them!

    • I’ve never seen a weight used before! I’ll have to keep an eye out for that one. The clip strategy is super common, though. It’s all a bit silly really. And you’re right – there seems to be no discernable reason NOT to do some PSAs about seatbelts (and bike helmets, and car seats, for that matter). Maybe one day…

      • I have to say Shanghai is probably better than other places in China and more and more taxis are starting to have seat belts in the back and nearly all have had them in the front since I can remember, even if they are reluctant to let you use them.

      • Real cabs in Beijing are fine with seatbelts now – they rarely even comment when I buckle up, keeping to just a raised eyebrow or a snort/grunt. Black cabs are a little more outspoken, and many of them outfit their cars with all manner of accessories, including (in many cases) shelf-things between the front seats that restrict access to the seatbelt latch. I’ve taken to having them clip the belt in for me since I have difficulty twisting my arm into the angle required to reach the latch…

  4. Got a great picture the other day (posted on my latest post) of a taxi driver who had looped his seat belt over the handbrake lever. Will they ever learn?

    • Oh wow, that’s a new one!! My current regular driver keeps his seatbelt buckled but behind his back. When he goes in town where there are cameras/police he loops the diagonal around his front, but the lap belt is still behind him.

  5. Ah yes, the one-over-one-under technique, I have seen that one many times. Basically do whatever you can to MINIMISE the effectiveness of the belt. I think that specific technique ensures you die of asphyxiation in the event of an accident!

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