Monday, 5 December 2011

Have car, will drive...with no plates

More drivers doing so to bypass traffic rules

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Guanyu 道 said...

Have car, will drive...with no plates

More drivers doing so to bypass traffic rules

By Ho Ai Li
05 December 2011

More and more residents of China’s capital city are driving around naked these days.

No, they are not taking off their clothes before getting behind the wheel. What they are removing are the licence plates from their cars.

Aspiring car owners in Beijing need to ballot for one before they can buy a car. The last digit on the plate decides which days of the week they can drive their vehicles.

Such measures were introduced to curb horrendous congestion in the Chinese capital.

Once people get their cars, however, some drivers do not even display the plate - which is not permanently affixed. And the number of such errant drivers is growing.

Police stopped one plateless car every five minutes during a check earlier this year, according to local media.

In another operation, they towed away seven illegally parked cars with no plates from the Central Business District.

The Beijing traffic authorities did not respond to questions, but anecdotal accounts suggest that the problem is increasingly widespread.

Seven of 10 drivers here interviewed by The Straits Times felt that more people were driving without a plate in recent months. A carpark attendant counts about 20 such cars each day.

The reasons for going ‘naked’, a term used by residents to refer to the plateless vehicles, are numerous. But they are primarily to get around official restrictions to control traffic congestion.

‘Some people remove their plates on the day their car is barred,’ motorist Deng Zhuo, 32, an IT executive, said. ‘They tend to use a route to work that they are familiar with and which doesn’t usually have a police presence.’

Drivers who have bought a car but have no luck in balloting for a plate may also resort to driving around without one, said Mr James Tan, 36, co-founder of an Internet company.

Motorists believe plateless cars can help them get away with breaking traffic rules like running a red light or speeding. They also believe having no plates allows them to park their cars illegally, without punishment.

Beijing has a severe parking shortage, with only 2.5 million parking spaces for more than five million vehicles. Parking fees were raised earlier this year to discourage driving and reduce congestion.

Motorist Mu Shuhua, 40, said he once saw a car with no number plate zoom off without stopping to pay at an expressway toll en route to the Great Wall on the outskirts of Beijing.

‘There was a Canadian in my car and he was astonished. He tried to film the car but it was too fast,’ he recalled.

Others have seen drivers flee without paying at places like carparks or petrol stations, confident that they could not be easily tracked without plates.

Such blatant and open violation of traffic laws would be unimaginable in many other countries. But here, lax enforcement leaves many motorists fancying their chances.

In any case, it is easy to remove a licence plate in China. Stores sell a double-layer rack that allows the plate to be slid in or out easily.

Such racks are outlawed and the police raided Beijing shops selling these earlier this year. But a check by The Straits Times still found them being sold openly online.

Mr Mu, for instance, once saw a motorist get out of his car to remove the licence plate. A policeman saw this and hollered: ‘Why did you take off your plate?’

The driver put it back, but escaped without a fine. On paper, such violations should be punished with a docking of six points and a 200 yuan (S$40) fine.

It is widely believed in Beijing that the police do not punish those without licence plates because they fear that the drivers may have official ties to or are the offspring of high-ranking leaders.

Such notions came about because of a twisted modern-day China logic that these drivers dared to defy the law only because they know they have the right connections, or guanxi.

Guanyu 道 said...

In Beijing, where the powerful and privileged hold sway, the capital’s commoners have long had such considerations.

As Mr Mu reasoned: ‘Who knows who these people are? They may be people with connections for all you know.’

It is not helped by the fact that most of these ‘naked’ cars are usually luxury brands such as Bentley, Mercedes-Benz and Maserati.

Indeed, 15-year-old Li Tianyi thought he could get away with driving a black BMW with no driving licence or number plate, just because his father is famous People’s Liberation Army singer Li Shuangjiang. In China, the legal driving age is 18.

He did - until he was found out when he and a friend were arrested for beating up a couple in a road rage incident in September.

This plateless trend needs to be wiped out soon, said transport scholar Chen Yanyan of Beijing University of Technology, because it leads to greater danger on the road with no accountability and no brakes on reckless driving. ‘It means the chances of being nabbed are small, hence there’s less of a restraining effect on their behaviour,’ she said.