When we outsiders think traffic in China (and Asia in general), the first word that often comes in mind is “chaos”. When thinking scooters specifically, I get two specific visions, and they are not much unlike the two pictures below:
We all laugh and smile at photos like this because it does look quite funny, doesn’t it?
Until you see the videos of traffic accidents involving scooters in China that you can find everywhere on the web. Until you hear the numbers of traffic accidents and deaths caused by scooters. Until you witness one of the many daily scooter accidents yourself. And on top of that, you’ll find enough videos online of exploding e-bikes while charging and setting a room on fire. It comes thus as no surprise that the Chinese government is looking for solutions for this growing safety problem that the roughly 250 million (registered) electric scooters cause in the country.
In April 2019, the Chinese government announced that in the coming years, there will be more strict regulations and law enforcement regarding electric scooters and e-bikes. As a first step, it was not allowed anymore to have more than two people on the scooter, although it wasn't always strictly enforced. What the government did strictly enforce, was registering and licensing all scooters by April 15th, 2019. Any unregistered scooters after April 15 were without exception confiscated. By December 31st, 2022, electric scooters need to comply with new national standards.
These new national standards for e-bikes made my mouth drop when I first saw them:
- The maximum speed must not exceed 25km/h.
- The vehicle weight (including battery) can’t exceed 55kg
- The e-bike should have pedal riding ability
- The motor power can’t be more than 400W
- The nominal voltage of the battery is not more than 48 volts
- The appearance cannot be modified
Are we even still talking about scooters? Does that mean that scooters that do not comply with these standards are going to be banned and destroyed? How are those hundreds of millions of people going to get to work if they cannot drive their e-bike? If they could afford a car, I am sure they would've already bought one. And the last thing China needs is more cars. And how am I going to get around without my beloved scooter?
Turns out, any scooter type that does not fall into this new e-bike category will be in the same category as motorcycles, meaning that from January 1st, 2023, you will need a motorcycle license to drive a scooter. To get a scooter license, you need to be 18 years or older and younger than 70 years.
A normal day in Chinese traffic, scooters everywhere
After having scootered around Kunming for over 3 years now, I am a bit sad but mostly happy about this new turn of events. The chaos and lack of law enforcement on certain minor areas, such as not wearing a helmet, taking 2 extra friends on your scooter etc., was something I preferred over the too-tight regulations of my home country the Netherlands. But on the other hand, I cannot drive to work without at least five times mumblingly cursing at other people who do something stupid and don't use their brain in traffic, leaving me wondering how I did not witness more accidents than I did (luckily only very minor ones where no one got injured).
When you are not using your brain when driving a scooter, you are well at risk of losing said brain.
The Chinese government also knows this, and that is why this May 2020 the government announced that from now on, motorcyclists and electric scooter drivers need to wear a helmet when driving as a new national law regulation. This comes paired with a campaign for car drivers needing to wear seat belts when driving, including all passengers. This will be strictly enforced from 1st June 2020.
“In order to further improve the safety protection level for motorcyclists, electric scooter and car drivers, and reduce the death toll in traffic accidents effectively, the Ministry of Public Security's Traffic Management Bureau started to carry out the "One Helmet One Seatbelt" safety operation throughout the country.
The Ministry of Public Security's Traffic Management Bureau requires that local traffic management and public security departments in all provinces strengthen publicity and guidance to enhance the public's awareness of wearing safety helmets and safety seatbelts. Jointly with industry authorities and industry associations, ideas such as receiving a helmet as a gift when buying an e-bike or e-bike insurance are encouraged by the government. More demonstration and guidance in key industries such as express delivery, take-out, taxis, and online car-booking, is needed to complete the use of safety helmets and seat belts effectively. The public security traffic control department will strengthen law enforcement and management, investigate and correct the behaviour of motorcycle and electric bicycle riders who do not wear safety helmets and of car drivers and passengers who do not use seatbelts in accordance with the law, so as to help them develop safety habits.
According to statistics, motorcycles, electric bicycles and cars are the vehicles that cause the largest number of deaths in traffic accidents. About 80% of motorcycle and electric bicycle drivers dies of brain injury. In car traffic accidents, accidents causing casualties due to being thrown out of cars without wearing seat belts are common. Relevant studies show that proper wearing of safety helmets and standardized use of safety belts can reduce the risk of death in traffic accidents by 60% to 70%.
With one helmet and one seatbelt, safety is always there. The Traffic Management Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security reminds drivers and passengers that for the safety for you and your family, whether you are driving a motorcycle or an electric bicycle, whether you are in the front or back seat of the vehicle, please wear safety helmets correctly and use seat belts in a standardized way.”
Police all over China will start making people aware of helmet use and safety
Everyone on a scooter needs to wear helmets from June 1st, 2020. This also counts for passengers on the back, children and... dogs?
That’s a mouthful of official language, but it basically means that in May 2020, scooter drivers will be educated and warned, but not fined for not wearing a helmet. 20 education points are set up throughout Kunming city where police can stop scooter and e-bike drivers who don’t wear a helmet to educate them, and the slogan “一盔一带” (One helmet one belt) will be displayed on the over 160 traffic announcement screens all around Kunming. “Educate” in traffic laws in China means that you will get a lesson from a policeman, and likely have to watch illegal, graphic videos of fatal traffic accidents to burn that image right into your mind so you will think twice before you don’t wear your helmet again. Yikes! Other education tools are teaching safety tips, copying traffic rules, participate voluntarily advise activities and get likes on your WeChat Moments post.
20 education points are set up throughout Kunming city where police will warn and advise people about safety and wearing helmets. On the right: police informing people at the information point at Kunming Railway Station
People are being educated about traffic rules and safety everywhere in China, which I think was long due time.
From 1st of June, 2020, when driving without wearing your helmet or seatbelt, you can get fined for and/or need to visit the Traffic Management Bureau for a couple of days to learn about safe driving. The fine in Kunming for not wearing a safety helmet on a motorcycle will be 50-100 RMB, but this can be different in other cities or provinces. Driving a scooter without helmet will not be fined in Kunming yet, but people will get a warning and advise to wear it. Driving with a child under the age of 6 without having a proper child seat nor wearing a helmet will also be fined.
Not wearing a seatbelt was already illegal and you could already get fined for that, but it was only ever enacted for the driver and possibly the passenger next to the driver. From now on, everyone in the car, including the people on the backseats, need to wear their seatbelts and will risk a fine if not doing so. The fine for not wearing a seatbelt for all passengers is 20-50 RMB.
Several public activities have been held by the police in the past week to promote the "One Helmet One Belt" policy
“Wear a helmet and facemask, both are equally important”
And this would not be planet Earth if there weren’t people trying to make a profit out of a situation like this. Just like what happened with surgical face masks for the first half of this year, this month the price for helmets is skyrocketing, already showing price increases up to 600%. Shortages are expected in June when the new regulations will be enforced as individuals are already buying up helmet stocks. In the past months, shops and individuals selling face masks for increased prices faced hefty fines by the national government, can we expect the same action from the government for helmets?
Shops all over cities throughout China now show a wide display of helmets, possibly selling them for more than they did cost yesterday
Though the new regulations are definitely more than reasonable, not everyone is happy with it. Some people will start taking public transport from now on because "a helmet will mess up their hair". At least it's safer than driving without a helmet!
As for me? It was fun being an irresponsible adult for a while, not wearing a helmet and seatbelts on the rear seats of the car, but now it’s time to nod our heads and acknowledge that this is how it should be. I am truly glad that China is getting safer and safer, both for the locals and also travellers from all over the world. I will start wearing my helmet that has been dusting away in my scooter storage box every time I step on my scooter from now on.
Drive safely everyone, and do wear your helmet and seatbelts!