China's Car Boom Tests Safety, Pollution Practices

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Traffic woes pale in comparison, however, to China's auto fatalities, which have been the world's highest for many years—despite the nation's comparatively small number of cars.

According to statistics from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, road accidents caused over a hundred thousand deaths in each of the past two years. Seventy percent of these fatalities were attributed to driver error.

Responding to the grim reality, China enacted its first law governing road traffic safety early last month. The statute assigns drivers more blame for pedestrians injured in auto accidents.

One Beijing driver, surnamed Li, was the first to be banned from driving for life under the new law, according to the state-run China Daily. Li fled after his car hit and killed a pedestrian on May 3. While Li expressed regret for the accident, he told the newspaper, "I never expected I would receive such severe punishment."

Other statutes will fine pedestrians and cyclists for failing to adhere to crosswalk signals.

Growing Oil Appetite

Rising car ownership in China also raises questions about future effects on the world's oil markets. But analysts say precise impacts are difficult to predict.

"China is currently the world's second largest consumer, but still only consumes about one-third as much oil as the U.S.," said Jeffrey Logan, China program manager for the International Energy Agency.

Logan notes that "growth is increasing very rapidly," however, and said Chinese demand for oil grew more than 10 percent last year and is expected to be about 13 percent this year. "Car ownership and industrial production are the main drivers of this growth in oil demand," he said.

Environmental Impacts

A decade ago, automobiles in China guzzled around 10 percent of the country's total oil usage. Today, cars now consume a third of all the oil used.

This growing appetite has raised environmental concerns both within China and abroad.

Only the United States produces more greenhouse gas emissions than China today. However, over the next few decades China's growth could far outstrip other nations'—in part because of the auto boom.

While coal use—responsible for some 75 percent of China's energy production—remains a primary source of air pollution, the growing number of automobiles in China is rapidly compounding the problem.

"In Beijing, and other cities, for 10 or 15 years [authorities] tried to switch from coal to cleaner fuels, like natural gas, and also to regulate polluting industries and move them out of the city centers," Turner said.

"In the early to mid-1990s they really started seeing cleaner air results. But by the late 1990s the car emissions had basically replaced the pollution that they had cleaned up before," Turner said. "In many big cities 50 percent of the air pollution is coming from cars. So it was a big step back."

The Chinese government has since tried to tackle problems posed by the growing number of cars as well.

Bus and rail systems have seen recent and ongoing improvements, and some cities have unveiled cleaner-fuel-burning buses and taxis. Government authorities have also mandated changes in the way the auto industry does business. Leaded gasoline, for example, was banned and largely replaced within a three-year time frame.

Emission standards, which were unknown in China before 2000, are now in place. While the standards lag those of Europe by a decade, government officials are trying to play catch-up.

New fuel-efficiency standards have also been enacted. Experts say the relatively small number of cars in China today makes its market more nimble in adopting new standards.

China's fuel-efficiency standards "are similar to the CAFE [corporate average fuel efficiency] standards in the U.S.," said IEA's Logan. "The requirements for 2007 are higher than those currently used in the U.S., which average 27.5 miles [44.2 kilometers] per gallon. In general, Chinese car [fuel] efficiency is fairly low, but the average size of cars in China is also small, so they don't consume that much petrol [gasoline]."

Turner notes that regulations are only a starting point. "The devil is in the details of implementation," she said. "Local governments are often not very supportive in implementing environmental regulations."

Support for auto regulations could be tough to muster because the car industry is an economic engine that drives job growth and industrial development. It also produces revenue in rather unconventional ways.

"Shanghai does a kind of auction or lottery for license plates, because the demand is so high," Turner said. "That money goes into the city's coffers. The local government's financial incentive is often clear—to get more cars out there."

For more news on China, scroll down.

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