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December 11, 2011

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Behind China's epidemic of road rage

SITTING dumbfounded on the edge of a hotel bed, a middle-aged farm couple holds the ID card that belonged to their only son who died a few days ago on his birthday. The cause: a road rage crash involving his white Mercedes-Benz and a BMW driven by another man.

The two men had never met but apparently quarreled over a parking space, then engaged in a high-speed car chase that ended in a crash December 4 night on the Middle Ring Road in the Pudong New Area, police said.

The victim was 25-year-old Fei Xiaohui, whose body was found not far from his car. Blood gushed from a neck injury. Police detained the other driver, a 42-year-old businessman surnamed Li.

But exactly what transpired on that chilly night remains unclear and the parents from Qidong in Jiangsu Province were stunned and bewildered. They only knew their only son was dead. He came to Shanghai five years ago to make his fortune.

"We are not rich," Fei's father Fei Bing'an says. "We are peasants."

He said his son earned around 3,000 yuan (US$471) a month working in a stock brokerage. After he got into a romantic relationship, Fei bought the car and was making monthly payments.

"He was supposed to be happy that day on his birthday," his mother wept.

Road rage

Fei is the latest victim of what is known as lu nu, or road rage, a well-known phenomenon in the West. The term is said to have originated in America in the 1980s when the car was king. Cities were growing, cars were increasing, traffic jams and stress were on the rise.

Today the car is also king and a potent status symbol in China, which last year surpassed the United States as the world's largest car market. China added around 18 million cars last year, according to China Car Association.

In Shanghai, one in five families owns a car and the total number of cars on the road is estimated at 1.7 million.

The increased traffic has been dramatic, and so has the frustration by drivers in a hurry; life stress in general is high in cities. Road rage may be expressed in rude gestures, verbal insults, honking horns and flashing lights, deliberately driving in an unsafe or menacing manner or making threats. Sometimes this leads to accidents and death.

"Opinions differ on whether or not lu nu is a mental issue," says psychologist Cao Lijun, "but one thing is certain: people's bad temper has to be released in some way and it could happen while one is driving.

"People may control their emotions at work, study or in other situations, but not on roads since it's much easier to vent anger on strangers driving by."

Of course, if there's a provocation and perceived wrong - a driver who cuts in front without signaling, a driver going too slow, a driver who "steals" a precious parking place - rage can explode.

City traffic police agreed.

Reflecting on how traffic has changed in 10 years, Zhabei District traffic police chief Wang Denghai says it's obvious that drivers are more reckless and getting angry more often these days.

"In the past one officer could scare off a bunch of cars, while now one car can scare off a bunch of cops," says Wang.

Many cases of road rage ignite when there are traffic violations and this increases the risk for others, he says.

Lu Feng, a spokesman for the Shanghai Police Department, says last Sunday's tragedy "could have been avoided if the two parties had taken a step back and shown some manners."

For a nation traditionally known for patience and courtesy, the lack of common courtesy on the road and the frequently outrageous, lawless driving behavior is shocking to many visitors.

Ignoring traffic signs and lights and disregarding pedestrian walkways and pedestrians are common. Honking horns, flashing lights, cursing and cutting in front of other drivers is just part of daily traffic.

Lack of courtesy

"If someone cuts in front of me, I usually flash my lights at them from behind all the way until they're gone," says Steve Lu, an office worker. "Or if someone cuts me off, then I will deliberately block lanes to prevent him from merging with the traffic."

"I would at least point a finger and talk rudely" to drivers who violate traffic rules, says a driver surnamed Yu.

As emotions mount, drivers sometimes get out of their cars and quarrel or scuffle, or worse.

A taxi driver was stabbed and injured by an out-of-town driver waving a knife after the taxi cut in front of him downtown on the Elevated Road on October 19. A 23-year-old man surnamed Li was detained on suspicion of assault to commit serious bodily harm. Li told the police that he "easily got agitated on city streets."

The tension and anger can be so palpable that newcomers are shocked, especially people from Scandinavian countries where bicycle culture is strong.

Increased number of cars, crowded roads, slower traffic flows and insufficient parking are all problems.

As for the latest road rage incident in which young Fei lost his life, Internet users immediately seized on the fact that both drivers were in luxury cars, mocking them for getting involved in "an inexplicable fight."

"That hurts," Fei's father says.


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