On the morning of October 28 a public bus carrying 15 people plunged off a bridge in Wanzhou, a sub-district of Chongqing, and sank into the Changjiang River.
Everyone on board died but for hours the cause of the accident was misreported, with a car being blamed for swerving into the bus’s path.
More importantly, the newspapers drew attention to the fact that the driver of this “red sedan” was a woman.
“River Bus Crash in Chongqing Caused by Female Driver Crossing Central Dividing Line,” the Beijing News confirmed in its headline.
Quite how the newspapers decided the accident was the fault of the car driver is unclear, especially as the bus plummeted off the bridge on the opposite side to the lane it was travelling in.
Yet for six hours – until the police corrected the record – there was an outpouring of misogyny online.
“Of course this accident was caused by a female driver,” wrote one indignant weibo user.
“Female drivers equal road-killers,” wrote another.
One blogger even took a screen grab from the news footage and then circled an image of the woman’s feet to show she was wearing “high heels”.
A more accurate description of the footwear would be medium-heeled winter boots and the clip was filmed after the accident had happened, when the driver, identified by local media as a Ms Kuang, was sitting on the side of the road.
Netizens soon began to search out the woman’s identity, with some calling for to be “executed right away”.
Yet when the police put out their first report on the tragedy later that evening, Kuang was absolved of any wrongdoing. “The accident was caused by the bus crossing the central line and hitting the sedan, which was driving normally,” the police acknowledged.
Later, when camera footage was retrieved from the submerged bus, it became clear that that driver had lost control of the vehicle because of a fight with one of the passengers.
The bus had taken an alternative route because of roadworks and a middle-aged passenger named Ms Liu had missed her stop, the Wanzhou police later explained on its official Weibo account.
She shouted at the driver – a Mr Ran – and things escalated to a physical confrontation, with Liu striking Ran twice over the head with her mobile phone.
In one of his attempts to grab the unruly passenger, the driver lost control of the wheel and veered off the bridge.
The statement concluded by saying that both people bore criminal responsibility for the accident because “Mr Ran should know that retaliating and grabbing Ms Liu would seriously endanger the safety of the bus”.
In the aftermath of the accident debate followed two main lines: one focusing on the appalling behaviour of the woman on the bus, and the other on the earlier vitriol vented at female drivers.
The People’s Daily pointed out that attacks against people working in public services are nothing new. Doctors have been killed by angry relatives when patients die, airline staff are harassed when flights are delayed, and last month parents from Henan beat up a street-sweeper after she stopped their little boy from defecating on a pavement.
“Over the past 40 years, our country has made great progress in material civilisation, but there is still a lot of room for the improvement of spiritual civilisation,” the newspaper said, before calling for a “civilisation revolution”.
Meanwhile others called for an end to the demonisation of female drivers.
State broadcaster CCTV pointed out that studies in several cities showed that women drivers account for fewer accidents then their male counterparts, even when adjusted for their smaller numbers.
On Monday a NetEase article also noted that media seem fixated on the idea that women are bad drivers – noting the terms “female driver” and “road killer” were combined in 1,395 reports over the last two years. Conversely, reports about accidents caused by male drivers only included the term “road killer” 28 times over the same period.
After the truth of the Chongqing case emerged, the Beijing News wrote that too many people had been too quick to judge. “When the perpetrator of the river crash was thought to be a woman, all female drivers were put on trial in the court of public opinion. When it was discovered that a man had played a key role, no such debate about male drivers followed,” it commented, although it didn’t acknowledge that it had been one of those outlets which had got it so wrong.
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