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New campaign tames Shanghai’s unruly drivers

I have to admit I was quite skeptical when our city launched a new campaign to clean up Shanghai’s streets of rude and unruly drivers a couple of weeks ago. After all, such campaigns are quite common here, and usually last for just a day or two before city officials seem to lose interest and redeploy their resources elsewhere.

But lately I’ve had to rethink my initial stance, and am even starting to hold out a glimmer of hope for improvement, as the campaign remains in the spotlight and appears to be maintaining momentum a full two weeks after its launch.

Perhaps our local leaders learned a lesson from their campaign to stamp out fireworks during the recent Lunar New Year, which also impressed me and many others with its high rate of success. But unlike the fireworks campaign, which really only lasted a few weeks in the run-up to the Spring Festival, this new drive to civilize our streets and sidewalks could take months or even years to show some meaningful results.

Shanghai and China in general have long been known for their unruly drivers, who rarely yield to pedestrians, park illegally on both streets and sidewalks, and love to honk their horns incessantly even when doing so is useless. We can learn to live with such behavior since, but that doesn’t mean that anyone really enjoys navigating our city streets and sidewalks as a pedestrian.

Many of us simply rolled our eyes when the city announced a new campaign two weeks ago to crack down on such unruly behavior, including the addition of hundreds of police to the streets to enforce traffic rules that are frequently ignored. I’ve seen too many similar campaigns come and go without much result, such as attempts to crack down on fare-jumping and begging in our subways. Usually such efforts last for a day or two and are featured in the local news, and then quickly disappear without any longer-term results.

This time seemed to start out the same, as police were out in full force trying to enforce traffic rules in the first few days after the campaign began. But then the heavy presence of police on the streets continued, involving frequent arguments between officers and drivers who protested over being stopped and ticketed for offences that were illegal but widely tolerated in the past.

I was particularly impressed this week when I received a text message, which I rarely get these days, reminding me to follow traffic laws and not to do things like park illegally, excessively honk my horn or run red lights. A friend told me he got the same message, so I can only assume that it was sent out to all Shanghai residents as part of the new campaign.

I was equally impressed when media reported this week that 460 regular police officers in the Huangpu District had been given authority to ticket people for illegal parking, effectively doubling the number of people who could issue such tickets.

The last time I was this impressed was back in February during the firework crackdown that was ultimately quite successful. At the time I pointed out the campaign showed just how effective our local government could be when it decided to tackle a particular problem and committed necessary resources to the campaign.

But that campaign was relatively simple, since it really just focused on a few days around the Lunar New Year. By comparison, this new campaign has no specific timeframe, and could take months or even years to show some tangible results.

One of the biggest problems our police will face is simple fatigue, since they will inevitably grow tired of getting in arguments with nearly every violator they stop.

To combat that problem, the city could give officers training to be more authoritative and firm when confronting violators who often become outraged, even though they really don’t have any good defense for their actions.

Another intriguing tactic would be finding a place in this campaign for the many retired street-dancing women, known locally as dama, who can be quite fierce and would probably love the challenge of confronting traffic scofflaws. The city has already shown it’s willing to try such innovative approaches to civilize the streets of Shanghai, and I’m hopeful the campaign will continue to plow forward.

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