January 16th, 2012
Sometimes I’m tempted to think you can get just about everything in Beijing. Sometimes the only exceptions to the “Beijing has everything” rule I can think of are limited to things specific to little known island countries in the Pacific. But every now and then Beijing manages to throw a solid brick wall topped with shards of glass and razor wire at you.
We bought my daughter a carseat, the smallest of a Japanese brand’s range. It was supposed to last until she’s three – at least, that’s what the advertising said. All I can say is Japanese three year olds must be minuscule if a 9 month old half-Pakeha/half-Han lass can’t fit inside this thing. Well, she fits in, it’s just the straps are getting a bit too tight, and there’s no point using a carseat if she’s not going to buckle up.
So my wife found a German brand carseat online and ordered it. It seemed to check out, and my logic is German kids are probably of a fairly similar size to Kiwi kids, so chances are it won’t suddenly turn out to be too small. The car seat arrived, it’s big, but not too big for our tiny Suzuki, got stacks of space for the baby, the design looks pretty good – a big, solid brace to hold her in, side impact protection, including for her head, and the whole thing clearly designed to absorb shock like a bike helmet. Sweet.
Then we were taking her to the hospital for a check up and vaccination on Friday afternoon, went down to the car, took out the old carseat, put the new one in, baby in the seat, brace in front of her, and….. the seatbelt was 5cm too short. Bugger. So the poor thing had to be squished into the old carseat. Fortunately it’s only a short journey. We probably should’ve just walked, even.
So I got online and poked around Google a bit. Yes, seatbelt extensions are available. Sweet. So I told my wife to see if she could find them on her Chinese shopping websites, and yes, searches drew results. Sweet. We only need an extra few centimetres.
On Saturday I popped up to Carrefour to see if they had them in their little car accessory section. No, but they did have these odd little buckle things that plug into the regular buckle, then the seatbelt plugs into them. Three or four of them would do the trick. But they didn’t look very good – you know how sometimes metal just looks cheap, and when you get up close and personal it shatters like thin glass? And besides, multiple buckles struck me as being somewhat akin to overloading electrical circuits with multiple multiboxes. Yeah, not the most rational assumption, but that’s what it seemed like.
Now, one good thing about driving in China is the 汽配城/qìpèichéng – large markets for car parts, accessories, repairs, customisation, basically anything you could want or need to do to your car. They’re awesome and fascinating. So on Sunday we went down to the nearest such market, the place where we’d already gotten a few bits and pieces and our windows tinted, and we probably would’ve gone straight for the very store there we’d used before, they’re good people. But to get there meant driving through a multitude of markets, and once we entered the market area, what we saw did not inspire hope. All the markets on the way there had been torn down, even the very new buildings. We got down to where the qìpèichéng and it was also in the final stages of demolition, with just a few remaining sections of framework still visible. Once again, bugger.
“Shilihe!” my wife suggested, and I gave her a bit of a surprise by asking “Where’s that?” See, I’ve developed a bit of a reputation among my in laws and those of my wife’s friends who’ve seen me drive for knowing Beijing’s roads backwards and my navigational skills. For example, on the way back from Yanqing after New Year I gave my wife and her mother a bit of a surprise. I wanted to get petrol, but I wanted to go to a particular petrol station that I knew to be cheaper than the Sinopec stations that seem to dominate rural Yanqing, but I wanted to avoid traffic and take the most direct route. So I did. And just as we were about to pop out at the southern edge of the county town, my wife and her mother suddenly realised they had no idea where they were. But I met the main road from the county town to Badaling and the Expressway exactly where I wanted to and my favourite petrol station just 500m south of there. But I knew which nearby part of Beijing she was referring to, I was quickly reminding myself 3rd or 4th Ring Road (3rd, if you’re interested) and thinking how to get there from where we were. And besides, I’d seen similar establishments along the inside rim of the southeast 4th Ring Road just downstream from where we were. So we wound up at the market at Shibalidian.
My wife ran through all the shops selling things related to seatbelts. No extensions. She phoned the company we got the carseat from. “Well, most European and American cars these days have long enough belts.” Yeah, but not liking to waste our money on absurdly high petrol bills and constant repairs, we drive a Japanese car. “Oh, go and ask them for a longer seatbelt.” Ok. Except the staff of every shop laughed in her face. Who the hell wants seatbelts?!
Now, I generally drive as close to the maximum (some Chinese roads also have clearly signposted minimum) speed limit that road, traffic and weather conditions allow. I have to say it is quite distressing to be driving down the expressway and see in the car passing me somewhat faster than the speed limit or a prudent speed for the conditions a family’s only child standing in the wheel well of the front passenger seat playing with toys on the dashboard, unrestrained. What’s worse is how often I see this. But I don’t think this lack of attention to basic road safety is going to last. A few months ago the Beijing police posted to their 平安北京 Weibo account a video of crash tests simulating what would happen to a child held in a parent’s arms in the front passenger seat in a crash at only 40km/h. I showed it to my wife and made her describe it to her parents, and since then I have heard not even a single suggestion that my daughter might not need to be strapped in to her carseat. On Weibo a few weeks ago I saw that Beijing had announced it had installed and was about to turn on new high definition cameras that could see, among other less surprising things, whether the driver and front passenger had their seatbelts on, and fines would be in the mail to those who don’t buckle up – and since then I have noticed a lot more drivers with their seatbelts on. My wife recently came across a news story online in which a woman had been holding her 3-month old baby in the front passenger seat when a tire burst. The baby went flying through the windscreen and did not survive. That sealed my wife’s conversion to road safety. Publicity is out there, the police want to improve the situation.
It was suggested to me yesterday that the market for children’s carseats and seatbelt extensions here is composed of Westerners. I disagree. Carseats and other safety devices are easily available from websites, stores and malls targeted, not Jenny Lou style at Western expats, but Jingkelong style at local Chinese. This suggests to me that even if most Chinese families take a “she’ll be right” approach to their children’s safety on the roads, there certainly is a Chinese market of Chinese buyers for children’s car safety products. So I’m surprised and frustrated that we couldn’t get that seatbelt extension or a longer seatbelt.
Oh well, on the way out of the market my wife came up with an ingenious solution that should do the trick. We tested it when we got home, and it seems to work. Still, I will keep my eye out for a proper, decent-quality seatbelt extension, as that would leave me a little more comfortable.