China struggles with few roads for many cars: Erratic driving and careless pedestrians add to mounting traffic chaos, writes Teresa Poole

WHEN the traffic on Peking's showcase Third Ring Road ground to a halt recently, the jam was literally the fault of a road- hog: a pig on its way to market had jumped from the back of an open truck and on to the four-lane highway, causing chaos as it tried to evade the farmer.

Escaping pigs are not the usual cause of traffic jams, however. Peking's increasingly serious traffic congestion has more mundane causes: the inability of the road- building programme to keep up with the rising number of vehicles, and the erratic driving of most Chinese.

Over the past 10 years, the 'kingdom of the bicycle' has embraced the internal combustion engine with passion. And like its Asian neighbours, China's fast- growing economy is seen in gridlock on the roads.

Wang Jian Yong, head of China's traffic management bureau, under the all-powerful Public Security Ministry, admits that clearing a traffic lane for a smooth ride through Peking for an official convoy or foreign visitor is 'much more difficult than before'. Only the most important visitors are now given this courtesy.

The problems are set to get much worse. In 1983, according to China Today magazine, there were just 60 private cars in the country. Now there are around 50,000, and an official at the State Statistics Bureau earlier this year claimed that rapidly improving standards of living should make Chinese-made saloon cars affordable to ordinary families by the year 2010. Car ownership is the key status symbol for China's new rich, and preferably an upmarket model. This week the country's largest car fair, the Auto China 94 exhibition, opens in Peking and a quarter of a million people are expected to ogle the world's newest fantasies on four wheels.

In practice, with heavy tax pushing up the cost of a car to about 18 times an average urban annual salary, most of China's 1 million cars are still owned by the state or joint venture firms, although this does not stop them ferrying cadres' children to school and taking the family out at weekends. Government crackdowns on the profligate use of state money to buy cars and their misuse by government officials has had little effect so far.

At the end of 1993, says Mr Wang, the number of cars, trucks and buses in China reached more than 8 million, up by nearly one- fifth on the previous year. By the year 2000 that figure is expected to jump to 20 million, a statistic that gladdens the hearts of motor vehicle manufacturers, but which means China's main cities - Peking, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan - may face the same fate as Bangkok and Taipei, notorious for their traffic. In Shanghai, the government has banned the use of car horns from this Friday because drivers stuck in jams make so much noise.

The traffic problems are exacerbated by some of the worst driving in Asia, and the large numbers of pedestrians who wander across busy roads, oblivious to the dangers. More than 63,000 people were killed last year in 240,000 reported accidents. Cars veer from lane to lane, everyone happily drives the wrong way up one-way streets, and taxis screech to a halt anywhere to pick up passengers. Faced with this anarchy on the roads, the government has launched a programme in schools and among farmers to teach drivers and pedestrians about traffic awareness. To get some idea of what has to be done, this year's programme is called the 'Red and green traffic light project'.

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