Stuck to the dashboard on the passenger side of every taxi in Shanghai was a sticker with a telephone number. This was the number passengers could call if they wanted to complain about their driver going too fast or taking a roundabout route to their destination. This was quite possibly the most pointless notice anywhere in China. The first reason for this was the language barrier. The sticker was in both Chinese and English, but the operators on the end of the line spoke only Chinese. The second reason was that the operators view of what constituted safe driving differed massively from what most foreigners would consider anything remotely close to safe. To illustrate this, let me tell you a story of a journey my boss and I took one Tuesday afternoon.
We were on our way to a meeting across the city, and we were late. As a consequence, we were in a rush. We contemplated asking the driver to put the pedal to the metal. But, after he set off at over 70kph down a side-street, we decided there was little need. Our journey was around 15km. To get to our destination, we needed to take a couple of the elevated highways that run across the city and ease congestion on ground level. As soon as we got up there, the driver really got us moving. He was doing over 110kph and was weaving between the lanes with careless abandon. He was certainly going to get us to our meeting on time, but the whole process was a little frightening. Unfortunately, he was going so fast that he managed to miss the intersection we needed to take.
My boss yelled out in Chinese to tell the driver he had made a mistake. Then, to our amazement, the driver slammed on the breaks and slipped the car into reverse. In unison my boss and I screamed out "Bu" (Chinese for 'no'). However, the driver would not hear of it and began to move backwards up the highway. The following conversation took place in Chinese as we inched our way back up the highway with passing cars honking at us with unprecedented voracity:
"Please stop, it is not so important. We can take the next turning." My boss said.
"No problem, I can take this one."
"But it is very dangerous, please stop."
"Don't worry, it will be easy."
"Seriously, please, stop. You could get us killed."
"Don't be ridiculous."
At this point we realized that we were fighting a losing battle. So, we closed our eyes, grimaced and hoped we got off the highway alive. Thankfully, we got to our destination alive, somehow. When we arrived, my boss paid the driver - albeit grudgingly - but also took his I.D number, which was also stuck to the dashboard. He wanted to report the driver for his wanton disregard for our safety and the safety of other road users. So, he called the number that had been stuck to the dashboard. However, it did not go as well as we would have wished. The following conversation took place in Chinese and was recounted to me by my boss.
"Hello, how can I help you?"
"I wish to complain about a taxi driver."
"Ok, what was the problem?"
"Well, he missed the turning we should have taken and then reversed back along the highway."
"Ok, sir. Why was that a problem?"
"Why was it a problem? It was very dangerous."
"Ok, but did the driver to cheat you or try to overcharge you?"
"No, it was just very dangerous."
"Well, I am not sure I can help you with that."
"Why on earth not?"
"Well, most Shanghai taxi drivers will do that. It is not very unusual, and he got you to your destination quickly."
My boss politely hung up and grunted in frustration. The whole escapade was a clear reflection of driving in Shanghai. It was exciting and mildly amusing, but could also have proven extremely dangerous.