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Here’s the real question, Vancouver: Why are non-Asians such lousy drivers?

By Ian Young,
South China Morning Post
Special to The Post
 
Are Asian drivers really so bad? Judging from some of the recent reaction to a series of dash-cam videos shot in and around Vancouver, you’d think it was a scientific fact.
The videos, posted to YouTube and highlighted last month by local media, depict a cringe-worthy array of terrible road skills. Vancouver drivers reverse into moving traffic, sail through red lights and inexplicably collide with stationary objects.
Plenty of people claim their city to have the World’s Worst Drivers, but some Vancouverites who did so after watching the videos pointed the finger of blame at the city’s 900,000-strong immigrant population – in particular, Asian and Chinese drivers. This was in spite of the fact that the ethnicity of the drivers at fault in the videos was almost never visible.
“How many of these drivers were new international migrants, DWA or foreign taxi drivers? answer: MOST … DWA = driving whilst Asian... for those that didn't know!,” came the confident assertion from YouTube commenter “Ryan Smith”.
“Welcome to Hongcouver,” observed an anonymous poster.
“Vancouver and Metro area drivers are probably worst in Canada because of the high amount of immigrants and foreigners in the city... would be interesting to know how many of the drivers were Asian - sorry but it's just a horrible sad fact,” said another.
Supposed Asian driving habits are often discussed on Reddit Vancouver, where moderators keep a watchful eye on conversations that sometimes tread the fine line between racism and fair comment.
“As a 20s mostly white male living in Vancouver's perspective yes MOST Asians are bad drivers Okay, but the fact is they are inheritantly bad drivers. Its no secret that most Asian countries driving habits are atrocious at best,” said Canadian731 on Reddit, adding “Its not racist to tell the truth” before being swiftly banned.
But are Asian immigrants “inheritantly” lousy drivers? Or does saying so indeed make Canadian731 a racist (with ironically poor English skills to boot)?
The topic hasn’t been thoroughly studied in Vancouver, but trauma department doctors in Toronto have tracked the driving habits of more than one million recent immigrants, the highest proportion of whom were from China or India.
The results? Immigrant drivers were found to be far less likely to be involved in accidents than long-term residents, even after adjusting for mitigating factors such as shorter commutes or a greater tendency to use public transport.
“These results call into question common risk perceptions and a widespread negative stereotype,” concluded the researchers, led by trauma physician Dr Donald Redelmeier.
Over the eight years of the study, recent immigrant drivers were involved in hospital-worthy accidents at a rate of 158 per 100,000 people, compared to 289 per 100,000 long-term residents. Immigrant drivers were thus 45 per cent less likely to be involved in crashes resulting in hospital care, over an equivalent amount of driving. The study was published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention in 2011.
Immigrant drivers actually became more likely to be involved in a serious accident the longer they had spent in Canada – but at every stage of the study, immigrants were safer drivers than non-immigrants.
The conclusions of the study do not appear to be some kind of Torontonian aberration. Researchers at the University of Sydney discovered in 2010 that young Asian-born drivers were far safer on Australian roads than their Australian-born counterparts. Asian-born drivers were found to be 45 per cent less likely to be involved in a police-reported crash (the same risk gap found in Toronto), after adjusting for demographic factors.
The comparative crash risk among Asian-born drivers was even lower for very young drivers aged 17; these drivers were 61 per cent less likely to be involved in a crash than Australian-born counterparts. “Risk estimates for people born in other regions did not differ to those for Australian-born respondents,” the researchers found, suggesting that safer driving is specifically an Asian, not immigrant, attribute. The Australian research was published in the journal Traffic Injury and Prevention.
So how do we explain the persistent stereotype that Asians can’t drive? It might be racism. But perhaps it’s just observational bias – “if a driver does something stupid but looks like me, it’s because he’s a bad driver; but if that bad driver looks different, it’s because different-looking people can’t drive”.
With more than 400,000 ethnic Chinese in greater Vancouver, there is certainly no shortage of bad Chinese drivers. But there are plenty of good ones as well.
 
The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome: ian.young@scmp.com.
 
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