Traffic Accident Insights

Being abroad, you are automatically exposed to other cultures but after traveling for a while, I find, you become somewhat desensitized to the differences. It is particular incidents, though, that open your eyes and let you see how differently people behave.

Take, for example, a car accident. In our countries, we would normally call the police to let them sort out the mess. There might be some yelling and some name-calling, and the bitch and the jerk would angrily exchange their insurance information before driving (or being driven) away enraged.

Now, here is quite a different story of how four Tibetans dealt with this.

Going from Sershu to Yushu in Qinghai Province, we had to hitch a ride with a private car since there was no bus that day for a lack of passengers. Hitching is always very stressful because you never know whether the driver turns out to be a complete maniac (I guess this can also be said for any bus driver). We chose wisely, however, and the older driver hardly ever drove faster than 50 km/h (30 mph) which, at times, felt ridiculously slow. He probably wanted to make sure that his car full of people (a young man from Yushu, a monk, Tony and I) survived the bumpy 4-hour drive. It totally suited us!

After a couple of hours of casual driving, he stopped for a Tibetan hitchhiker standing on the opposite side of the road just to tell him that the car was full and that he was sorry he couldn’t take him. The Tibetan man walked over and, standing right next to the car, chatted with the driver for a while. Not a big deal – the road was wide enough and there were almost no other cars around. Suddenly, there was oncoming traffic and just as the car was passing us, with the Tibetan standing in between pressed against our car, a motorcycle decided to pass the oncoming car, in effect, going through the two cars with the Tibetan man standing in between. One second the Tibetan man was sticking his head through the driver’s window talking to us, the next second he was gone. There was screeching, shattering glass, my gasping and then everything was quiet for a moment.

What a freak accident! We were sure the Tibetan hitchhiker was severely hurt or even dead and jumped all out of the car to see what we could do to help. Miraculously, both people on the motorcycle as well as the hitchhiker got up immediately. Two of the guys were injured but not very seriously – the hitchhiker seemed to have twisted his knee and cut up his hands and leg, the motorcyclist also limped around and must have broken his pinkie (it did not look pretty). Only the older nomad on the motorcycle seemed to be fine.

The oncoming car (which was not at fault) was sitting 50 m away with a broken side mirror and decided to just take off in a rush. Behind our car, the motorcycle was laying on its side with a growing oil puddle forming underneath its engine. The car we were in, however, looked the worst by far. The driver’s window was smashed in, the rear bumper was torn off, and the whole side of the car was dented in and totally scratched.

Now, I expected everyone to yell at the motorcyclist who clearly caused the accident. But no! Everyone seemed to be standing around quietly at first looking at the damage and, I guess, evaluating the situation. Then the monk walked away, slumped down by the side of the road, laid his head on a rock and closed his eyes. Looking back, he probably knew this was going to be a longer process so he decided to just take a nap.

By now, Our driver, the hitchhiker, and the two nomads on the motorcycle had moved to a grassy area next to the road and sat in a circle obviously discussing what had to be done. There was much pointing going on from the car to the injured knee to the motorcycle but all in a low tone of voice. Once in a while they got up, walked over to the car, examined the damage then walked back and sat down again. This was going on for an hour while Tony and I had turned every rock and were getting antsy to move on. Finally the hitchhiker got up, climbed into another car that had stopped to watch, and drove off. From what we could see, the nomads had paid him some cash as compensation for his injuries. Relieved, thinking this was coming to an end, we were headed for the car but realized the group of three was still sitting discussing the case of the car. Another hour passed, and after the monk was consulted on the issue, a final payment to our driver closed the case and we were free to leave.

It was quite surprising to watch the older nomad pull out a wad of cash and pay our driver RMB 5,300 (equivalent to US $ 700)! I can’t even imagine how long it must have taken him to save all this money – then in a split second, he had to give it all away. After the sum was paid, our driver helped fix up the motorcycle and send the two nomads on their way. Then he removed the pieces of glass from inside the car, attached the rear bumper with the aid of string and off we went with plenty of fresh air coming in through the broken window.

What an interesting experience. My gut reaction would have been to yell at the motorcyclist for being so stupid (his move really was shockingly dumb). But even with the injuries and damage to the car, everyone involved behaved so matter-of-factly and in such a civilized manner without even raising their voices. You have an injury – it’s worth this much; your car is damaged – let’s talk about how much it is to fix it. And all without police, insurance companies or court dates.

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