The “Yellow Light Rule” Yields to Public Opinion

In China, traffic rules are often ignored, and the country is rife with road accidents. The Ministry of Public Security sought to address this problem by implementing new traffic regulations on January 1st. The ministry handed down a list of new rules, including smoking and cellphone bans for drivers. One new rule in particular - dubbed the “Yellow Light Rule” - caught the public’s attention. AutoBlog reports:

On January 1, 2013, it became illegal to drive through both red and yellow lights in the Asian country. Those cited more than once will likely lose their driving privileges. The aggressive rule follows a crackdown by Chinese authorities aimed at reducing the estimated 250,000 road traffic fatalities the country experiences each year – a figure that makes road accidents the leading cause of death among residents between the ages of 15 and 44, says the World Health Organization.

A Caixin news brief reports the specific penalties of the new regulation, and the online uproar that the law caused:

[...]The law, put into effect by the Ministry of Public Security’s Traffic Management Bureau on January 1, requires drivers to come to a full stop at a yellow light. If they fail to do so, drivers will have six points deducted from their license. (Drivers who lose 12 points from their licenses in a year lose them.) People have taken to their Weibo accounts to complain that more accidents will be caused by people driving slower in anticipation of a green light turning yellow.[...]

CNN translates a few Weibo comments, giving us a glimpse into the online chatter surrounding the new rule:

“I’m among the first victims of the new rule,” wrote netizen @SunYiXuan on Chinese microblogging website Sina Weibo, “I hit the car before me this morning when the driver slammed on the brake when the light turned yellow. Slow down when you’re 1 km away from the traffic lights. Good luck my friends.”

 [...]“If yellow light equals red light, we don’t even need green lights any more. On and off of one light can do the work,” @YuJianShouQing posted.A poll on Weibo shows 13,000 users, or 84%, of netizens who responded considered the new rule as “unacceptable”.

A poll on Weibo shows 13,000 users, or 84%, of netizens who responded considered the new rule as “unacceptable”.

China Daily went to the street to see what a Beijing taxi driver thinks about the rule:

Jiang Mingsheng, a taxi driver in Beijing who has 33 years’ driving experience, said the regulations have put him under pressure when he drives past road crossings, as many traffic lights in Beijing do not have countdown timers.

“I ran a yellow light the other day. I was meters away from the stop line and the lights suddenly turned yellow. I was almost in the middle of the road after I put my brakes on and stopped the vehicle,” he said.

“I don’t think anyone would be able to stop the vehicle in that case,” he said.

A more recent Caixin news brief reports that, after negative public reaction to the law was widely expressed, the Ministry of Public Security has softened penalties on drivers who fail to stop at yellow lights:

The Ministry of Public Security says drivers breaking a new rule on running yellow lights will be warned, but not lose points from their licenses. The ministry made the announcement on January 6, and said the change was in response to objections from the public.

The Economist has more on the ministry’s decision to heed public opinion, and offers a comment on what this says about the relationship between public opinion and official conduct:

The official response to the uproar was prompt and surprisingly conciliatory. On January 6th the public-security ministry shifted into reverse, announcing that in the light of public opinion, it was suspending enforcement of the yellow-light rule while it re-examined the idea. For now, violators will be “educated” rather than punished. The announcement even thanked the “broad masses” for speaking up.

On non-political issues, the urban populace is ever less shy about challenging officialdom. But it is still rare for Chinese officials, especially the police, to yield to public opinion. Whether the episode heralds more significant shifts in the relationship between China’s rulers and ruled, it may be too soon to say.