Drunk Driving in Nanjing: One Year Later

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This article was originally posted on China/Divide.

Some of Zhang Mingbao's Handiwork

It’s been a year now since Zhang Mingbao, driving with a blood alcohol content five times the legal limit, lost control of his car and ended the lives of five people in Nanjing. The horrific accident spurred the police department to implement a ‘get tough’ policy on drunk drivers, the results of which were recently released to the public. Does the incident and its aftermath offer any valuable lessons?

It was only natural that an accident of this kind was given so much attention by the media:

At 8:15 pm Tuesday, a car driven by a drunk driver lost control on a busy street in Jiangning district of Nanjing, and hit nine passersby and six other vehicles.

Three people died at the scene and two died later in the hospital, including a pregnant woman. Local media reported that the woman’s unborn baby also died. Four others were injured, Nanjing traffic police said.

[. . .]

Tests after the accident showed that Zhang’s blood alcohol content was 381 milligrams per 100 milliliters. A person is considered drunk when his or her alcohol content is 80 milligrams per 100 milliliters[.]

In addition to the grim facts themselves, extremely graphic photographs of the accident scene were published by the media. This not only fueled outrage from the public towards the perpetrator of the crime but also prompted severe criticism of the police in charge of the crime scene, who were accused of not treating the deceased victims (including body parts) with sufficient respect.

Everything Is Under Control

What happened next? You don’t need to watch an episode of The Wire to understand how municipal governments respond to public outrage.1 They immediately implemented a new, tough “zero tolerance” policy against drunk driving.

There are arguments to be made for and against this kind of government response. Critics can point out that drunk driving had for years been a significant problem in Nanjing that was virtually ignored by the police. In 2007 and 2008, drunk driving cases in Nanjing totaled 6,020 and 8,878, respectively, and in 2009, prior to the incident with Zhang Mingbao, the number of cases was 5,054.

Indeed, Zhang Mingbao’s case itself was evidence of a serious enforcement problem. As discussed at China Car Times:

Zhang has been in trouble with the law for his ‘crazy’ driving before, totaling 80 various different violations within 3 years. Zhang received his C1 license in April 2006, and by April 2009 he had a total of 80 driving violations, which included speeding and running red lights.

Why did the police wait until the public forced their hand?

Additionally, the initial anti-drunk driving campaign began the day after the Zhang Mingbao accident. Granted, this was a temporary, 100-day initiative, and not a comprehensive policy. However, to respond to an extremely important public health and safety problem with a knee-jerk, hastily put together plan within hours of an accident seems extraordinarily irresponsible.

On the other hand, one can credit the government for responding quickly to a significant problem, even if that response was a bit too hasty. Despite the fact that drunk driving had been a problem for some time in Nanjing, even critics of the foot dragging would have to admit that the government policy was “better late than never.”

The initial 100-day campaign turned into a longer term plan for the city, and the police force in the past year have emphasized enforcement of drunk driving laws. A recent release of pertinent statistics trumpeted the following numbers:

  • Four hundred police officers have been detailed to fight against drunk driving. (One wonders whether this includes traffic and beat cops who were told to “keep an eye out” for drunk drivers, and then counted as participating in the new project.)
  • There have been twenty-nine special crackdowns, whereby city-wide networks of checkpoints, using 800 individual police officers, were established to catch drunk drivers. These generally coincided with special events such as holidays.
  • In the second half of 2009, the number of drunk driving violations totaled 2,655 (including 51 government officials), of which 338 individuals were arrested.
  • In the first half of 2010, the number of drunk driving violations totaled 2,203 (including 21 government officials), of which 203 individuals were arrested.

That’s a lot of activity, and by the unwritten metric of bureaucrats worldwide, the crackdown has been a success. Whether the policy is adequate to address the drunk driving problem in Nanjing is a separate question, the answer to which may not become apparent for several years.

The entire incident, from the accident to the crackdown, provides a lot of food for thought. First, it is yet another reminder that public opinion in China is extremely powerful, and in many instances sufficient to motivate the government to act. In this case, the public outcry was not specifically channeled into a call for a drunk driving crackdown, but the implementation of a new plan the day after a well-publicized incident must have been motivated in part by the possibility of a public backlash.

Second, I suspect that the entire tale of Zhang Mingbao and the new drunk driving crackdown, including local political pressure and the subsequent policy choices, could have been told not only in almost any city in China, but in a majority of major municipalities worldwide. Horrific crimes engender fear, and the public naturally looks to local government to protect them. This dynamic happens everywhere in the world. Whether a nation is authoritarian or democratic, socialist or capitalist, some things don’t change. In the immortal words of Quentin Tarantino:

[T]hey got the same shit over there that we got here, but it’s just – it’s just there it’s a little different.

Third, what kind of marks should we give the Nanjing government on this issue? It seems unlikely that “better late than never” is an acceptable performance standard. Moreover, do we really want our local governments responding to these incidents with hastily thrown together, panicky crackdowns just because they are afraid of public opinion?

The public appears to have the ability to force action at the local level in some cases, but only after a crisis (a single horrific event, or perhaps a deluge of more minor incidents). Is this system of accountability acceptable, or is local political reform the inevitable solution?

  1. The Wire was an American television show produced and aired on HBO that dealt with crime and politics in the U.S. city of Baltimore.[]