I know a number of Asian Americans who are quick to point out the inaccuracies of many of the stereotypes attributed our people (No, we’re not all model minorities. No, Asian guys don’t have small dicks), but there’s one stereotype they will reluctantly admit has some basis in truth…that Asians are bad drivers.
But how accurate is this stereotype and is there any solid evidence to support it? I asked our readers via our Twitter and Facebook pages to share their thoughts on the subject and I’ll get to some of those responses in a moment. But first, let’s take a look at some of the “evidence” for this stereotype to determine if this is indeed…chinky or not chinky?
First, let’s look to the homeland—Asia. According to this 2004 article from Time magazine, the rate of traffic-related deaths in Asia are indeed the highest in the world:
With just 16% of the world’s cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles, Asia accounts for more than half of the roughly 1.2 million traffic fatalities that the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates occur globally every year. More than 600,000 Asians are killed and another 9.4 million are severely injured in traffic accidents annually.
Those statistics make Asia’s highways the meanest streets in the world. In Thailand, for example, road accidents are now the third leading cause of death after aids and heart attacks, according to the country’s Ministry of Public Health. In China and India, where members of expanding middle classes are taking to the roads in record numbers, crash rates are growing out of control. Car ownership in China jumped 41% between 1999 and 2002, while over the same period accidents increased twice as fast, by more than 83%. P.K. Sikdar, director of the Central Road Research Institute, a New Delhi-based traffic consultancy, ranks the carnage in India right up there with his country’s natural disasters except that “earthquakes and cyclones don’t come every year. Road accidents come routinely,” he says. “Like clockwork, more than 80,000 people [a year] simply get wiped out on our roads.”
But is this proof that Asians are the planet’s worst drivers or could there be other factors behind this troubling statistic? The same article suggests that the unprecedented economic growth that many Asian countries have been experiencing in recent years has led to more vehicles on the road (also bringing with it more inexperienced drivers), but not necessarily better road conditions or traffic safety laws. In countries like China and India, the mode of transportation may now be first world, but traffic safety still remains third world:
Asia’s motorists are plagued by hazards faced by travelers everywhere: drunk drivers, bad weather, heavy traffic. But developing countries harbor a host of other factors that heighten the peril. With car and motorcycle sales rising fast, deficit-ridden governments are hard-pressed to build wider, safer highways to accommodate swarms of new commuters. In poorer nations, existing road systems are often badly maintained and lack basic infrastructure such as stop signs and traffic signals. Traffic in Asia is frequently a tumultuous and deadly mix of pedestrians, affordable (but highly vulnerable) motorcycles, cars, pickup trucks ferrying loads of passengers, and heavy trucks that feed the region’s voracious economic engine all vying for places in line along the same overburdened stretches of blacktop.
Of course, it also doesn’t help when you hear stories like how this Korean woman had to take her driver’s test 950 times before passing.
But how does this apply to Asian drivers outside of Asia? If you look at the statistics of deaths from auto accidents in the U.S., it does seem like Asians are on the higher end of the fatality rate, which could suggest we’re not the best drivers:
15.0 per 100,000 Hispanic/Latino people died from motor vehicle injuries in USA 2001 (NCHS, 2003)
15.6 per 100,000 white people died from motor vehicle injuries in USA 2001 (NCHS, 2003)
21.8 per 100,000 men died from motor vehicle injuries in USA 2001 (NCHS, 2003)
25.9 per 100,000 American Indian or Alaska Native people died from motor vehicle injuries in USA 2001 (NCHS, 2003)
25.9 per 100,000 Asian/Pacific Islander people died from motor vehicle injuries in USA 2001 (NCHS, 2003)
9.3 per 100,000 women died from motor vehicle injuries in USA 2001 (NCHS, 2003)
And how do other factors come into play–such as the fact that the majority of Asians in the U.S. (60%) are immigrants? If the Time magazine piece is correct and Asia does have a culture of unsafe driving practices, are the worst Asian drivers here immigrants (as opposed to native-born Asians)?
But there is also evidence that this stereotype may just be that—a stereotype. According to this person, back in the days when race could be used to determine your insurance rates, there was actually a “good Asian” discount which would suggest that Asians must have been, well, good drivers. This is anecdotal, but I asked my father and he also swears his insurance rates were once lower due to his being Asian. And I find comments like this one to be hilarious: this person says that she lives in a community that is 90% Chinese and complains how all the bad drivers she sees are Asian. Well, duh, if you live in an area that’s almost all Asian, of course the bad drivers (as well as good drivers) are likely to be Asian.
Which brings me to the most compelling study I could find to shatter this stereotype. It comes out of Australia where the “Asians are bad drivers” stereotype is just as prevalent as it is in the U.S. and here’s what they found:
Sydney University researchers claim that young Australians born in Asia are significantly safer than Australian drivers born everywhere else. Their crash risk is half that of Australia-born drivers. The researchers used answers from 21,000 P-platers aged to 25 and crash reports provided by police to arrive at a startling result few people would be prepared to believe!
Sydney clinical psychologist Jeroen Decates offered this reason for why this stereotype might continue to exist if there was no basis in fact for it:
In a Sydney newspaper’s report of the research into the driving of different ethnic groups, Mr. Decates explains why a stereotype can be self-perpetuating. We are more likely, he says, to note that a poor driver is of an Asian background if this is evidence for the stereotype we hold. We are always, he says, looking for confirmation of our beliefs. I suppose, too, that drivers of Asian stock are more readily identified and grouped than, say, drivers of British stock. It may be meaningless to stereotype Caucasian people as bad drivers, and if that is the case it should be as meaningless, I suppose, to do the same for Asian people.
In other words, we are more likely to notice when a bad driver is Asian simply because we expect bad drivers to be Asian thus reinforcing the stereotype (I suppose this could also apply to women drivers who actually have the lowest rates of accidents as you can see from the stats I shared).
Junko: I think it’s just a weird stereotype. I didn’t hear about it until the past 5 years… maybe until I got out to LA even. I just think it’s just plain weird.
Andrew: I believe it stems from truth. Asians are typically really good at concrete skills such as math and science, but not so good at abstract skills such as art. Driving is an abstract skill and requires a special awareness of one’s surroundings. Other races have bad drivers too, but all of my near accident encounters have been with Asian women. Ha! Maybe Asians just don’t bother to go to driving school?
Michael: Well, South Korea does tend to have the highest rate of traffic accidents in industrialized countries, but I would not say that Asian people as a whole are bad drivers. Native South Koreans on the other hand…Things have been improving there though. Their fatality rate due to motor vehicles was almost 35 times the US, but it has declined since.
Jonathan: Yes, I believe Asians are bad drivers. I live in Northern California and I see it (curse at them) all the time.
Yes, there are other groups too that are known for erratic behavior on the road, eg. young white girls, but the skills of many Asian drivers are indefensible.
Usually can be found doing wacky things like pressing on the brake for no reason and hesitating to fulfill simple maneuvers. TBH it seems that it’s mostly Asian immigrants, not American born Asians, who struggle with driving. Why this is, I do not know.
Mary: Asian immigrants come from a country where driving is not a skill, it’s a survival tactic. If any American tried driving around Seoul, they’d DIE. I do not even attempt it despite my international driver’s license.
On the other hand, being an Asian female, I do get insurmountably irritated with the stereotype as I’ve driven from both ends of the U.S. continent, down to Florida, down to Mexico, up to Canada, in SF downtown madness, Chicago downtown madness, LA madness (if you can call gridlock driving), and know the difference between defensive driving and offensive driving and switch-hit as circumstance necessitates. I’ve never dated a guy who knows the so cal freeway system better than I; and yes, I use north, south, west, east and not left, right, the really big white rock on the corner and Del Taco a block after the gas station.
Point being, yah, some people really suck at driving, but really, the bad (female) Asian driver thing is so immigrant (woman)-hating on, ludicrous and ignorant at best, malicious and stupid at worst. Please. Stop.
Tyrone: I do not think it is limited to “Asians”. I see PLENTY of other folks from all walks of life, ages, genders, and colors that sometimes make me wish they would just get creamed by a semi-truck just 1x so as to spare the rest of society further harm from them. Nobody STOPS at STOP signs or RIGHT TURN ON **RED** any more. People back out of parking spaces without even looking behind them at all. They BLOCK the fast/passing lane on the freeway/highway and REFUSE to move out of the way. They GO when they are NOT supposed to, and DON’T GO when they ARE SUPPOSED TO. They are CLUELESS and OBLIVIOUS, living/driving within their own little world. And now, almost everyone talks/texts on their mobile phone too while driving…..NOT paying attention to their driving behavior and lack of control of their vehicle. Driving safely is the MOST important thing to do while driving. Everything else can wait.
The only reason it may seem as if it is “Asians” or maybe “Hispanics” is because there are many of them here in SoCal and other large metro areas. Some of them also come from places where traffic laws/rules are practically non-existent, or they just have a different way of doing things. There is a different “pulse” or “rhythm” to driving in different parts of the world….even between different cities in the USA. It is also TOO EASY to get a driver’s license in the USA. Many people do not take driving seriously. They forget that it is a matter of LIFE or DEATH. It is SCARY how irresponsible and ignorant many “drivers” are these days.
Laren: Although they can often make for amusing jokes, I don’t care too much for stereotypes. Sure, there’s usually some factual basis for them, but the over-generalization leads to people sincerely believing in something as a given fact that is usually only true of about half the population in question- if that. The “Asian Drivers” stereotype is one of them.
The best drivers I’ve ever known were Asian.
The worst drivers I’ve ever known were also Asian.
So what do our other readers think? Is this a stereotype that has some truth to it or is it complete bullshit? Chinky or not chinky?
But one final thought I’d like to leave you with. If Asians are such bad drivers, how do you explain this: