Safety Is as Safety Does

By Katie Hayes
Taxi driver in Hongzhou, China

 “You don’t need that,” Xian taxi driver Chang Xumin remarked sharply, as I reached for my passenger seatbelt. “It’s very safe, really.” He apparently took offense at the thought that I might need a seatbelt in his cab, but the prospect of riding beltless in Chinese traffic persuaded me to buckle up anyway. Chang clucked a few times and sped off, narrowly missing an old woman who was slowly crossing the street.

Chang was not the only driver who took my reflexive reach for the belt personally. Another chuckled at my futile attempt to untangle his cab’s jammed seatbelt, saying it hadn’t been used in over a decade. Judging by the layer of dust that shook loose from the belt, he was probably right.

Beyond the disregard for what seem like basic precautions in the United States, the cabbies of China have safety concerns at least some Americans may find hard to understand. The cab I hailed outside the Beijing International Airport sported an acrylic shield around the entire driver’s seat, isolating the driver in a tiny bubble of privacy within the already-cramped sedan.

During the course of my next taxi ride, I asked about the dividers’ purpose. Taxi driver Li Ren informed me that the barriers were a precautionary measure, designed to protect drivers from would-be kidnappers who would hijack the cab for crimes or rob the driver of his earnings.

“I don’t see any need for [the barriers] myself,” Li said. “They give people the wrong impression about Beijing’s environment.” His pride in his city was evident as he detailed the government’s efforts to make Beijing safer for the Summer Olympics.

“It maybe is safer to live here than in American cities right now,” Li ventured. “We don’t have guns and knives in the streets - at best, maybe fistfights.”

Taxi drivers in China rent cabs from larger companies, and cover gas and repairs out of their own pockets. The average income for a 10-hour workday in Shanghai is around 90 yuan, or about $13, according to Mr. Wang, a manager at Shanghai’s Da Zhong Taxi Company, who declined to provide his given name because of company policy.

Many Chinese drivers I spoke to were positive about China’s safety, but their actions suggest that they do not really believe their own words. Acrylic barriers cost about 450 yuan to install, Chang said. Yet they are in common use in Shanghai’s 47,000 taxis, as well as in Beijing, Xian and Hangzhou.

“Some [drivers] think the precaution is worth the approximately one week’s wages,” Li said. “One kidnapping or accident could be devastating to a driver and his family.”

Li, though, feels safe enough without a barrier in his cab. "I truly believe my city is safe," he said. "If I put up dividers, wouldn't that contradict what I think?"