On 4 September 2015, Slate published a controversial article titled “Driven to Kill: Why Drivers in China Intentionally Kill the Pedestrians They Hit.” The piece was written by Geoffrey Sant, who teaches at Fordham Law School and serves on the board of the New York Chinese Cultural Center. Sant’s article described a purportedly common phenomenon in China of drivers deliberately and repeatedly driving over pedestrians after accidentally striking them with vehicles. According to Sant, this phenomenon is spurred by that country’s laws, which create a perverse incentive for citizens to kill other persons rather than gravely injure them (and become financially liable for their ongoing care):
It seems like a crazy urban legend: In China, drivers who have injured pedestrians will sometimes then try to kill them. And yet not only is it true, it’s fairly common; security cameras have regularly captured drivers driving back and forth on top of victims to make sure that they are dead. The Chinese language even has an adage for the phenomenon: “It is better to hit to kill than to hit and injure.”
“Double-hit cases” have been around for decades. I first heard of the “hit-to-kill” phenomenon in Taiwan in the mid-1990s when I was working there as an English teacher. A fellow teacher would drive us to classes. After one near-miss of a motorcyclist, he said, “If I hit someone, I’ll hit him again and make sure he’s dead.” Enjoying my shock, he explained that in Taiwan, if you cripple a man, you pay for the injured person’s care for a lifetime. But if you kill the person, you “only have to pay once, like a burial fee.” He insisted he was serious—and that this was common.
The article appeared to draw rather presumptive, definitive conclusions from a series of possibly unrelated incidents, primarily based upon assumptions about scenes captured in CCTV footage. Starting with offhand comments made to him by a friend in the 1990s, the author interprets admittedly upsetting video footage through the lens of something a single individual (whom Sant described as “enjoying” his shock) had told him during a drive to work several years earlier. By way of proof, he offered an example of the “hit to kill trend” from 2008:
This 2008 television report features security camera footage of a dusty white Passat reversing at high speed and smashing into a 64-year-old grandmother. The Passat’s back wheels bounce up over her head and body. The driver, Zhao Xiao Cheng, stops the car for a moment then hits the gas, causing his front wheels to roll over the woman. Then Zhao shifts into drive, wheels grinding the woman into the pavement. Zhao is not done. Twice more he shifts back and forth between drive and reverse, each time thudding over the grandmother’s body. He then speeds away from her corpse.
Incredibly, Zhao was found not guilty of intentional homicide. Accepting Zhao’s claim that he thought he was driving over a trash bag, the court of Taizhou in Zhejiang province sentenced him to just three years in prison for “negligence.” Zhao’s case was unusual only in that it was caught on video. As the television anchor noted, “You can see online an endless stream of stories talking about cases similar to this one.”
Video footage to which the article linked did not appear to be operational, and we were unable to locate any other copies of the clip. Nevertheless, the passage above illuminated a key weakness of the article: while the video footage may have accurately reflected a driver’s running over a pedestrian several times, security camera footage doesn’t give any insight as to what the driver might have been thinking, feeling, or even intending during a fatal traffic incident. It’s not uncommon for drivers involved in accidents, especially those in which they cause damage to other pedestrians or property, to panic and attempt to extricate their vehicles, thereby causing much more damage than the initial collisions did. Thus it can be quite difficult to definitively determine, from a video clip alone, that the strategy behind a driver’s actions in an accident was governed by a cool-headed desire to avoid higher legal damages rather than by panic, adrenaline, or intoxication.
Sant’s article opened with an anecdote in which “a BMW racing through a fruit market in Foshan in China’s Guangdong province knocked down a 2-year-old girl and rolled over her head,” and Sant later forwarded us a news account of the described incident, which occurred on 20 April 2015. Although that accident involved a motorist’s striking a pedestrian child numerous times with her vehicle, the article neither states nor implied that the driver (who was unlicensed and therefore presumably inexperienced) intended to kill the child. Moreover, the little girl who was struck wasn’t killed in the accident (although she did later die of her injuries).
The article’s links led almost exclusively to Chinese-language video sites, making their content difficult to independently check or examine in any sort of useful context. One link claimed that “a woman was caught on video repeatedly driving over an old man who had slipped in the snow” in January 2015, but that clip captured an incident that took place in Russia, not China, and was widely reported in western news articles as such.
The Slate article cited six instances of purportedly deliberate vehicular killings captured on video, at least two of which were apparently either misrepresented or unsupported by citation. As well, even the viewable videos didn’t demonstrably depict heartless drivers murdering pedestrians solely to avoid hefty legal damages: viewers could only discern that they chronicled incidents of drivers’ striking pedestrians multiple times during the same accident, for reasons that could only be assumed or guessed. And even if the incidents depicted were proven to represent what was claimed in the Slate article, they would constitute six examples taking place over roughly the span of a decade, or less than one per year in a country with a population of 1.4 billion people — hardly what one would categorize as a “common” phenomenon.
Some Chinese-language editorials have referenced or decried the supposed phenomenon “hit-to-kill” over the years, noting that “The saying ‘In traffic accidents, it is better to hit to kill than hit and injure’ is quite popular among some drivers” and asserting that “recently a number of incidents have occurred in which drivers were misled by this saying, and after hitting someone in traffic accidents they went ahead and killed those persons.” But such items are essentially reports of rumors, not objective evidence that the phenomenon is actually taking place. Editorials are often quick to decry purportedly common social ills that are in fact rare or non-existent (e.g., we deal with spurious warnings about “new drugs” and children’s sexual games several times a year); and we haven’t yet found any articles in which Chinese drivers admitted to intentional killings of pedestrians. And the legal maxim that it’s better (from a liability standpoint) to kill someone rather than merely injure or wound them is common in many parts of the world (including the U.S.), so public knowledge or repetition of such a notion isn’t evidence in itself that people are commonly acting on it.
The one piece of objective evidence that might support the “hit-to-kill” hypothesis is a much greater incidence of pedestrian deaths in vehicular accidents in China than elsewhere; but even Sant acknowledged there are other (more likely) explanations for that phenomenon:
China does not keep statistics on hit-to-kill incidents (or allegations), but statistics on traffic accidents are quite interesting. Xinhua News Agency has reported that in the PRC, there is a four-to-one ratio of traffic accidents resulting in injury versus traffic accidents resulting in death. In the United States, the ratio is approximately 70 to 1.
This means that traffic accidents are vastly more likely to result in death in China than in the United States. To be clear, I think that the primary reasons for this disparity include: less seatbelt use in the PRC; more drunk driving in the PRC; more dangerous driving in the PRC.
Hit-to-kill driving is far less significant, in my opinion, than these other factors. Nevertheless, the fact that such a high percentage of traffic accidents result in death is extremely disconcerting.
It’s not uncommon for egregious misinterpretations of Chinese life and culture to filter into mainstream Western news sources; and that problem has intensified with social media’s boundless appetite for offbeat news. Slate‘s piece on why Chinese drivers purportedly kill the pedestrians they hit proved popular on social media, but its claims were weakly supported.
As one Quora user responded to a question about whether the intentional killing of pedestrians was a widespread phenomenon in China, the rumor has the urban legend-like hallmark of being localized to a number of different countries:
[It is] based on an ugly and stubborn urban legend that has been floating around all over SE Asia for at least ten years — with the country changing with the location. I have heard it, several times, about Filipino drivers (here in Manila) and about Chinese Taiwan drivers (in Taipei), with friends reporting instances of the same ugly myth about Thai drivers (in Bangkok) and about Vietnamese drivers (in Hanoi).