Just a few days ago, a Chinese sleeper-bus collided with a methane-laden tanker in the northern city of Yannan in Shaanxi province (BBC report here). Sadly, at least 36 people lost their lives due to this tragic accident. While this particular incident has made it to many international media outlets, there are numerous similar cases that only get published in the local Chinese media and go unreported internationally. Sure, these kind of accidents can happen anywhere in the world, irrespective if it is the developed or the developing world. However, various factors (such as bad infrastructure, poor driving skills, driving rules not followed etc.), have indicated that road accidents may be more apparent in developing countries.
With state figures showing that in 2011 alone, at least 62,000 people perished due to road accidents in China, road safety is the one of the key issues set on the Chinese government's agenda. Because of the high frequency of these accidents, it has become (sadly) a common trait for staff to take mugshots of every passenger on a coach before the journey. This is so that they can identify you in case you have an accident. It may not be a comfortable feeling to know this, however it is a fact that every passenger has to experience before his or her journey. Similarly, for train journeys’, we (passengers) have to provide a copy of our passport number or ID card number so it would be easy to trace and inform our relatives in case of an accident (god forbid!).
The bus involved in this crash was a 'sleeper-bus', and considering the design of such buses and the way in which it crashed, it may sadly be assumed that most of the passengers would have found it difficult to escape immediately because of the cramped conditions.
So, what's it really like to take a 'sleeper-bus' in China?
Cramped is just one of the many words that may be used to describe the conditions in such buses. Sleeper-buses are normal long distance coaches modified to have a maximum of 40 beds installed instead of seats. While it may not be a healthy and comfortable environment to be in for a 12-hour (or more), journey, it is nevertheless much cheaper than taking a train or plane for long distances in China. The bunker style beds are stacked in a very 'stuffy' 3-story set up with a narrow aisle in the middle of the coach interior. Another way to look at it may be to compare it to being on a fully flat bed in first class of a plane, but the only catch is that you'll most likely end up banging your head every time you try to get up (and plus the food and environment may not be so..err...cosy).
Most journeys start in the evening at around 6pm, and last for anything between 12-15 hours. I fondly recall taking a sleeper-bus from Shenzhen to Guilin in 2004, a journey of around 13 hours, and costing RMB 85 (approx. equivalent to £5.00 in those days). By contrast, if I had taken a plane then it would have taken only 50 minutes, and total cost would have been around RMB 500 (around £50.00). I took it for the experience to see how the locals travel.
On that particular route, the vast majority of the passengers consisted of university students, or local farmers returning to their villages’. Amidst the entire chaotic journey, I can say that I did manage to get a few hours' sleep (except the bumpy roads that we came across). However, even while I was sleeping I recall having this fear that something bad may happen such as someone may take away my belongings, or the bus may overturn (especially when it turned at sharp corners). There is very little or no chance that in case of an accident anyone can safely escape, even if they had the courage to break open the glass windows. So, you can imagine that the unfortunate souls in the accident in Yannan were just stuck there without any hope.
Various factors such as the lack of space to sit up properly, the strong smell of food, smelly feet of other passengers (and other unmentionable human smells), and just the feeling of being stuffed in a tin can for 14 hours made the whole experience intolerable. Most coaches don't have toilets installed, so there are regular stops too. On top of that, expect it not to be a quiet journey at all, especially when you have 39 other people trying to keep each other motivated by telling each other stories.
In recent years, Chinese coach companies have looked at ways of developing a more user-friendly coach for long distance travel. Designs have included coaches that have more space for passengers, and are safer to be in (and more comfortable). Even so, while China’s economy is booming at a dizzying pace, and with the government looking at ways of improving road safety as a top priority, it is still going to be a massive challenge to reduce the number of road accidents on Chinese roads.
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