China will soon have nearly as many drivers as the U.S. has people.
As of this week, the number of Chinese motor-vehicle drivers was poised to break past 300 million people, according to the country’s top law-enforcement agency, including 244 million licensed passenger-car drivers. The U.S., by comparison, has about 319 million men, women and children, and nearly 212 million licensed drivers.
Meanwhile, China has 154 million private autos, next only to the U.S., said the ministry. The U.S. government puts the number of cars and trucks there at around 240 million, suggesting China still has a ways to go before it can fill parking lots the way Americans do.
The numbers – a result of China’s wealth accumulation over the past decade as well as the rise a domestic car-manufacturing base – have all kinds of implications for the world’s No. 2 economy. The rise in the ranks of drivers could be good news for an industry facing slowing growth and overcapacity, though it also complicated Beijing’s efforts to wrap its arms around the country’s massive pollution problems.
First, the details: Chinese drivers are increasingly female, both older and younger, and new to the streets.
According to the ministry’s data, in the last 10 years the number of female drivers has jumped 11 times, while that of male drivers rose 7.4 times. The number of people licensed to drive a car above 60 years old soared 38 times, while that of licensed drivers below 25 surged 11 times. Meanwhile, about 9.7% of license holders had received it in the past year.
The rash of new drivers could be good news for the auto industry. UBS Securities estimated China’s overcapacity in the passenger-vehicle market by 2015 could total about eight million cars. Most of which would be on the books of domestic auto makers.
Despite that, foreign players are revving up investment and expanding manufacturing capacity in China. Volkswagen said last week it and its two Chinese joint venture partners will invest an additional EUR22 billion in China between 2015 and 2019. General Motors Co. has also said its capacity in China would reach five million units annually by 2015 from 3.4 million units.
Still, the big gap between the number of licensed drivers and the number of cars in China is helping it develop a rental and lease industry. The city of Beijing has restricted the number of license plates issued for new cars since 2011. Similar restrictions have also been in place in other major cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou, and more cities are expected to join in the coming years.
That could add to safety woes. China has seen some improvement in road safety in recent years. In 2013, the country recorded 16 major road accidents in which at least 10 people were killed, down from 80 accidents in 1996. The death toll caused by speeding last year dropped 36% from a year earlier, though it didn’t offer specifics.
Still, the ministry said, China’s accident rate and fatality rate are much higher than that of developed countries.
“In spite of rapid growth in the auto market, China has yet to cultivate its own auto culture and many Chinese people haven’t learned how to drive in a civilized way,” it said.