Why don’t we do it in the road?

May 20, 2004 | It’s rush hour, and I am standing at the corner of Zhuhui and Renmin Road, a four-lane intersection in Suzhou, China. Ignoring the red light, a couple of taxis and a dozen bicycles are headed straight for a huge mass of cyclists, cars, pedicabs and mopeds that are turning left in front of me. Cringing, I anticipate a collision. Like a flock of migrating birds, however, the mass changes formation. A space opens up, the taxis and bicycles move in, and hundreds of commuters continue down the street, unperturbed and fatality free.

In Suzhou, the traffic rules are simple. “There are no rules,” as one local told me. A city of 2.2 million people, Suzhou has 500,000 cars and 900,000 bicycles, not to mention hundreds of pedicabs, mopeds and assorted, quainter forms of transportation. Drivers of all modes pay little attention to the few traffic signals and weave wildly from one side of the street to another. Defying survival instincts, pedestrians have to barge between oncoming cars to cross the roads.

But here’s the catch: During the 10 days I spent in Suzhou last fall, I didn’t see a single accident. Really, not a single one. Nor was there any of the road rage one might expect given the anarchy that passes for traffic policy. And despite the obvious advantages that accrue to cars because of their size, no single transportation mode dominates the streets. On the contrary, the urban arterials are a communal mix of automobiles, cyclists, pedestrians, and small businesses such as inner-tube repairmen that set up shop directly in the right-of-way.

The psychological consequences of traffic accidents have been rarely the subject of research. Responses of serious traffic accidents and the effects of an outreach program for victims were studied in a research project. Subjects selected from police registers participated in a preventive counseling program or in a monitoring group. Foci of this study were the way in which the subjects coped with the event and the symptoms that might develop. Measurements were carried out 1 month and 6 months after the accident. The results indicate that an average of about 10% of the victims suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders and that although counseling is appreciated by victims, it could not be proven that it was effective in preventing disorders.

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Gerore K Moon

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