During Shanghai’s colonial era the control of the flow of pedestrians and vehicles along the crowded streets was a major problem. As a solution, the British brought in Sikhs from India to stand at intersections, issuing traffic directives with hand gestures, and punishing offenders with their clubs.
The tall Indians, adorned with bright red turbans, became an iconic image of the period. And now to control persistent traffic woes, some cities in modern China have turned to less conspicuous regulators: the general public.
Guangzhou, for example, has introduced new incentives for its citizens to report traffic offences. If drivers inform the police of five or more minor traffic violations (within a year) or report a single case of drunk-driving or a hit-and-run, they can have three of their own penalty points deducted (currently if a motorist has 12 points he needs to resit the driving exam).
As well as reporting an incident, the informers have to provide video or photo evidence of the infraction. That isn’t too hard given the prevalence of smartphones and the rising use of dashcams. “It will be as though there are policemen hidden everywhere,” a local driver told TVB News.
In nearby Zhuhai, the city’s police force is also asking the public to help. According to Information Times, Zhuhai citizens can use WeChat to report traffic misdemeanours to the police, though the newspaper doesn’t mention whether the residents are given any incentives to snitch.
Offering some upside (or, at least, ensuring there is no downside) would seem to be essential to get citizens to assist. In 2014, a report by state broadcaster CCTV found that only 11% of respondents would be willing to help someone in an emergency. But if they could be guaranteed indemnity for helping, the percentage shot up to 93% (at the time there had been high profile instances where an injured elderly person would later try to sue those who tried to offer help, alleging they’d caused their injury and should pay medical costs).
In recent years a number of cities have passed “Good Samaritan” laws, which offer legal protection for those who assist in emergencies. But in the case of traffic violations, a greater issue may be the reluctance of local police forces to actually implement the laws.
Speaking to Sixth Tone about Shanghai’s latest push to regulate traffic, Wei Kairen, a former deputy head of its traffic police, explained why previous initiatives had failed to make lasting changes. “I can’t deny that we used to enforce the law quite loosely. Police officers didn’t punish people who broke the traffic rules during the morning and evening rush hours. Part of this new overhaul has been to develop habits of strict law enforcement among our officers.”
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