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Stop, Look and Listen – the Green Cross Code

February 18, 2012

This week I find myself in Xian, home of the famous Terracotta Warriors and final resting place of the first Emperor of China, whose lofty achievements include not only being the first emperor, which would be enough, but also building the Great Wall of China, an army of at least 10,000 life-size clay soldiers and unifying the disparate warring tribes of the Middle Kingdom, creating the mighty dynasty we see today.

Not a bad innings as these things go but also, due to regular consumption of the mercury reportedly sitting in lakes under his unassuming tomb just outside the city walls, mad as a box of frogs.

I suppose this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise – you have to have a fairly loose grasp of reality to decide that the most sensible way to travel to your final resting place is to go there accompanied by 3,000 murdered concubines, an army of 10,000 clay soldiers buried at your feet and the corpses of 6,000 murdered workers who built the thing for you.

Makes me wonder how they ever got them to finish the job – I mean, if I was a worker who knew full well that once I finished Terracotta Warrior number 9,999 I faced certain death, well, I’d take a bit of time over my work, if you know what I mean.

“How’s that last clay head going, Nathaniel Xu Wang Chu Cooke? Finished yet?”

“Erm… nope, no, not yet, I still have a bit of work to do on – on – on the left eyebrow. Yes.  Definitely not finished the left eyebrow yet”

“Are you sure?  It looks pretty good from here already.”

“No no, I am a perfectionist and that eyebrow will definitely take some considerable time.”

“Really?  Well how long then?  All your mates have finished, they’re, um, just washing up round back…”

“Ooh, say, thirty more years, give or take?”

That’s how I’d do it.  But then having one plank short of a tree-house, and a cavalier attitude to certain death, still seems to be all the rage in Xian – as can be readily seen at the crossroads of the busy junction we navigated with some terror last night.

To suggest that roads are dangerous in China would be to, shall we say, understate the case somewhat.  Nobody stops.  For anything.  People drive out of junctions without so much as a prayer, swerve between oncoming vehicles, hurtle towards concrete barriers in overtaking manoeuvres Ayrton Senna would wince at and completely and utterly ignore pedestrians as they cut corners, bump kerbs, run red lights and accelerate over crossings.

I can only assume that at this particular crossing this has led to more than one ‘accident’ as this is the only crossing place I have seen in any of China that is staffed by at least 8-10 traffic wardens armed with whistles and red flags, physically restraining people from cheerfully launching themselves, lemming-like, in to six lanes of high speed traffic.

This approach to navigating highways and byways is not without its consequences.  Depending on who you ask, 100,000-200,000 people die each year in the roads in China, and the World Health Organisation reports 13.5% of all road fatalities originate here.  They go on to state that: “In China, traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for people between 15 and 45”.

But only if you cross the road, or get in to a car.  If you are, say, sat in your flat on the 15th floor of an apartment block in Chinese suburbia your chances of being hit by a high speed articulated rickshaw are approximately zero.

Statistics are a bugger.  I devoted a whole chapter to them in How Not to Get Hit, as you can’t fully explore the subject of self defence and safety without understanding how your behaviour relates to your risk of personal harm. The behaviour of Chinese citizens, both drivers and pedestrians, results in astronomically high road fatalities for those who get too close to, or inside of, anything that moves on four wheels or two.

The same goes for all risk – mugging, assault, being slapped in the face, having a drink thrown at you – your behaviour goes some significant way to making these things happen.  There are examples of random violence, but they are few; mostly you, the victim, are to some degree or other responsible for being in the position you are in.

Victim of a mugging?  Were you walking down a particularly quiet, secluded street? Maybe a back alley?  Late at night?  On your own?  Did you have your belongings on show? What signals were you giving off?  Did you pay attention to your surroundings?  Speak to your attacker before they revealed their intentions?

Maybe, maybe not. Women and men, of almost all ages, actually have a equal risk of being mugged so whether you are or not largely depends on your behaviour, not who you are – I’m willing to be that there was a reason, more than just a twist of fate, that meant you were targeted that particular day, by that particular person. I’m not saying it’s your fault, just that some decision you made that day, had you made it slightly differently, would have turned out very differently.

But relax.  Your risk of violent crime, any violent crime, is only 3% on any given day, at any given time.  A bit higher on a Friday night in town, a bit lower in a Monday morning traffic jam, but you get the idea.  And of that 3%, more than half recorded incidents are in fact no worse than a bit of verbal abuse, or an angry shove.  Your actual risk of violent assault is around 1.5%, give or take, so don’t go altering your behaviour that much; risk should be managed in relation to the severity of the risk, and the likelihood of it happening.

Violent assault is a high severity, low risk event which means that you should do all the easy things to make it less likely, such as thinking about which road you walk down, how you look and who is around you, but think twice about the more life changing behaviour changes such as wearing a knife vest at all times, hiring a security escort, or staying at home forever with the curtains sticky-taped shut.

So relax, you’ll be fine – but if you get in to a car in China maybe think about putting your seatbelt on, and if you’re crossing the road keep an eye out for scooters.

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