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Five tips for surviving on China's chaotic roads

October 19th, 2009
01:57 PM ET

Show no fear: He (or she) who hesitates is lost

This is particularly true at intersections, where much to the fear and terror of anyone visiting China for the first time, the "left turn in front of oncoming traffic" is one of the most common, and yet totally illegal moves.

This happened so often I asked Yan Wenhui, the head of a driving school in Beijing, if I was mistaken and the move was something unique to China. " According to traffic regulations, vehicles that are turning should give way to vehicles going straight," he told me with a totally straight face - so much for that.

To carry this out successfully, the car making the left-hand turn must move quickly to cut in front of the oncoming traffic. Novice international drivers especially often make the glaring mistake of slowing down in fear, totally confused thinking they have the right of way (which they do); that will simply open the way for the entire line of traffic to make the left turn, while they're left at the traffic lights until it turns red.

Cross walks are safe for pedestrians – NOT

Try using the crosswalk on a busy Beijing road and you’ll end up ducking and weaving faster than Muhammad Ali. Again the rules are pretty clear –- the oncoming traffic must slow down, stop and give way to pedestrians, the reality is something completely different. There was a time a few years ago when I noticed drivers would stop for non-Chinese pedestrians, thinking that perhaps they were unaware of this unwritten rule, but that seems to have changed. Taxis and buses seem to be the worst offenders here, not only do they not stop, but they seem to accelerate, and head straight for you – or maybe I am feeling a little paranoid.

Bicycles, tricycles and rickshaws

Look out for these guys. There was once a time when China was the kingdom of bicycles -– and they’re not giving up the crown without a fight. Any accident involving someone pushing pedals, and the driver is toast. And boy do they relish their protected species status, pulling out, swerving and cutting in front with almost gay abandon.

Indicating is for wimps

OK, so it's getting a little better, but the bottom line is –- if you give any hint that you might want to change lanes, that just means the guy in the other lane is going to speed up to keep you out. Better to keep it a complete surprise.

Tailgating is standard

Make sure you follow as closely as possible to the guy in front. In the west we call this tailgating, in China, its called driving. Any gap, the smallest of space will be like a giant invitation for someone to cut in front.

Bottom line driving in China is all about making sure everyone else believes you’re not going to stop . . .  don’t make eye contact, and keep plowing through. And for the record, I don’t drive.

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Filed under:  General
soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Christopher

    Yes, it is trluy more dangerouse than the west. And the problem that the enforcement does not enforce the rules. They are geting better but the fact of the matter is that if the drivers are being punished for such display of disregard for the laws or regulations they will continue on about their business and not think twice. In the US each infraction generates cash flow and gives the public the frame of mind to be honest because you might get caught doing something you were not supposed to. In China the law enforcers there only care about real safety hazards of the roads like Daytime Drunk Drivers, or the newly beijing pollution prevention, and traffic control. Or even the fake taxi drivers. You have to realize its too many people to try and protect in any given area.

    What they have to work on is their courtesy training. The people themselves are selfish and want to get to where they want to go how ever way possible since there is no real body of enforcement instructing them. The typical driver in china pretty much has the mentality that a car is just an expensive bicycle and the rules that are set do not apply to them.

    October 19, 2009 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  2. George

    as long as they keep building me cheap computers and TV's they are free to drive as horrible as they wish.

    October 19, 2009 at 4:58 pm | Reply
  3. John C.

    No doubt traffic is bad in China, but, in general, traffic drives much slower than in most western countries, and, with the expection of a few highly packed urban centers, is much more courteous (albiet having some very unorthodox driving patterns). I'm not saying it is a safe place to drive or walk (for a westerner anyway), but jaywalking across busy 4 lane highways (and other infractions) rank next to ping pong in popularity – which simply would not be possible if traffic sped up or entirely disregarded pedestrians. I once drove with a local across Shantou, I commented on the bad driving and how nobody follows the rules, her reply was that "I always follow the rules," and then, over the next few minutes, proceeded to turn left in front of oncoming traffic, drive in the oncoming traffic lane, run two red lights, and cut-off pedestrians in a crosswalk. That being said, not once going over 35mph (and much slower at the crosswalk) – when in the west, some would have made it to 50. Still, its a war out there and seems intollerable to have to put up with that in your daily life. Then again, the commute in the SF bay area has serious accidents and death almost daily ... having seen both close up, I'm not sure it is so much more dangerous in China, especially if one takes basic precautions like not jaywalking across 4 lane divided highways.

    October 19, 2009 at 5:12 pm | Reply
  4. Elke, Germany

    Your report reminds me on some really horrible experiences I made when I drove through Poland, Portugal and Marocco. Until now I always get wet hand when I look back on it.
    I think you can´t say you get a car and you not. It´s a problem of all huge cities. The cities must try to show their residents that´s better to use public transportation. But therefore cities must have good and cheap public transport. That is not always the case.
    And to the way of driving: In the driving lessons we have learned that we have to be considerate of all other road users and have to observe the rules. And when not, the police will stop you and you have to pay.
    Here in Germany you get also points when you violate the rules. When you have a certain amount, you lose your driving license for a time or you must do some driving lessons again. And that´s real nasty and sometimes expensive.
    I think Chinese police or officials have to reflect on how to get the streets saver for all people.
    Best wishes

    October 19, 2009 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  5. Luiz Cordeiro

    Hey, you´re not talking about China at all. You´re talking about my home town, Curitiba, in the south of Brazil. Worst drivers in the world. Over there the so called "pros" - taxi and bus drivers– are the all time champions in the art of lousy driving . It´s hors concours.

    October 19, 2009 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  6. Bruce Blaylock

    There are driving rules in China albeit different rules than in the West.

    1. Drivers routinely violate the posted rules of the road without being stopped by the police or ticketed. This gives the appearance that all traffic signs are either suggestions or decorations.

    2. If there is an accident, the police are called and the rules are then applied in apportioning guilt.

    3. The driver who is ahead has the right away. It doesn't matter if the distance is two car lengths or 1 inch.

    The longer you remain in China the more you understand the system. What at first seems chaotic and incredibly dangerous becomes predicable and mundane.

    October 19, 2009 at 6:17 pm | Reply
  7. Amy

    Are you sure you weren´t writing about El Salvador? It seems like the same rules apply here to our "guerilla" traffic.

    October 19, 2009 at 6:31 pm | Reply
  8. A M

    The main issue in China is the inexperience of many drivers. As a regular business traveler to China, I am more than often sitting behind the wheel of my suppliers brand new cars, as they are simply clueless at how to 'master' the expensive beast!
    Like many westerners, I learned driving with 18 on old crappy cars, and only progressively got access to more powerful cars. This made me a prudent but also capable driver, and when driving in China I can resort to my 20+ years of driving experience and work my way out of any situation.
    In general, Chinese driving is getting better year after year, and there is a sort of street code, full of unwritten rules, but that any experienced driver will quickly apprehend.
    For those looking for true emotions I recommend Pakistan, in particular Beluchistan and Punjab, where I experienced the most chaotic driving in my life!

    October 19, 2009 at 7:29 pm | Reply
  9. Someone

    i agree to George actually.
    They do cheap work and usually the work that others won't do for low salary.

    It reminds me about driving in some countrys in Europe tho.
    Italy is crowded by mopeds and Romania by peeps who "sleep while they walk"


    October 19, 2009 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  10. gopa

    That reminds me of when I lived in India for a few years. We used to joke that to get a license there things were required: stop, go and horn.

    October 19, 2009 at 9:24 pm | Reply
  11. Dimitris

    Have you been to India, Egypt or ...Naples, Italy? These three would top my list. China is a distant fourth...

    October 19, 2009 at 9:44 pm | Reply
  12. dianne

    interesting ,sounds very similar to driving where i live.
    laws hmm for whom?
    stop signs, stop lights, SPEED LIMITS
    tailgaiting, making lots of lanes out of a two lane highway.
    the good thing is , when driving in places like this, people become very adept at avoiding head on colisions.

    October 19, 2009 at 10:26 pm | Reply
  13. Lenore Look

    Here's two more tips I learned from being a passenger in rural southern China:

    1. Don't turn on your headlights at night. It's a waste of battery power and blinds the water buffalo and his farmer who share the road with you. Flash your lights quickly only when you think you see oncoming traffic so you can avoid a collision.

    2. Wear a blindfold, or close your eyes when entering intersections. Traffic lights, signs and crosswalks do not exist. Your chances of surviving an intersection are greater if you do not see and cannot react.

    October 19, 2009 at 11:59 pm | Reply
  14. Kerry

    I live in China. About one hour ouitside of Shanghai. Beijing is not even bad by most Chinese standards. Try some frontier towns and you will really get a feel for the chaos. Shenzhen and Shanghai are becoming almost civilized for driving.
    But one hour outside the major centres in the east is where the fun really starts. In the last two years, there have been 5 accidents outside my office window (at least one fatality).
    Back home my office was on a busier street corner and in ten years I never witnessed one accident.
    The frustration is the lack of concern or action. The Chinese government has the ability to change things rapidly here. And the police have more than enough manpower. But most act like it is not even a major problem, which is wrong. Traffic accidents are likely a leading killer of Chinese people. Well ahead of other 2nd and 3rd world countries. Having visited many developing countries, the driving here is among the worst for a largely literate people.

    October 20, 2009 at 1:19 am | Reply
  15. KC Chau

    China is the freest country in the world in terms of driving. Drivers are free to do anything they wish, against the traffic regulations of course.

    October 20, 2009 at 1:43 am | Reply
  16. Todd Sappington

    It isn't much better in Fukuoka, Japan were running through a light for the last 3 cars after it changes to red is standard. I must say they are much more polite than what is described here but still as polite as the Japanese tend to be when it comes to driving that goes out the window. It is also amazing to me to see how many people ignore the Cell phone law as well as having children in child seats which is also a law.

    I remember when I first got her 23 years ago how amazed I was because they turned off their headlights at the red lights as not to bother the driver in front of them! That is no longer the standard.

    October 20, 2009 at 2:38 am | Reply
  17. Izzie Nutz

    You can chalk it up to being new to driving, but there's a cultural reason for it as well. Common Chinese are not taught to wait their turn or to make an orderly line. It's more like - first come, first served. You see this "me first" culture everywhere in China. It's no surprise that they drive the same way. When the world has to line up for dwindling oil supplies, you can expect the Chinese to once again push their way to the front of the line.

    October 20, 2009 at 3:39 am | Reply
  18. Alex

    Haa Haa. This is nothing compare to India (Mumbai).
    1) 4 cars side by side on a 2 lane road
    2) 30 seconds after the green light in an intersection and the cars on the other side is still beating the red light.
    3) Honking is like saying hello. Everybody honk's like nobody's business.
    4) C
    I always say to my friends, if you can survive dring in Mumbai then
    you are qualified to drive anywhere.

    October 20, 2009 at 4:03 am | Reply
  19. ravi

    I beleive pretty much same rules apply in India. Aggressive driving is the norm. If you are not driving aggressively, you are not going anywhere. No stop signs or no yeild signs. No concept of turn lanes. If you are waiting to take a turn hoping that someone will yeild to you, good luck.. You will spend the whole day there.

    I have driven in other countries where it is not that chaotic. Driving in India used to drive me nuts. People cut you off all the time, honking everywhere and there is no order. I realized driving in the mornings is getting me in a bad mood for the whole day. Finally I hired a driver and take naps in the car... feel better now..:)

    October 20, 2009 at 5:44 am | Reply
  20. l.massie

    The article reminded me of driving in Dubai, except for the bicycle part which don't exist in the land of Land Cruisers. Same driving habits as China only done at 160 kph. Somewhat explains their 10x death rate. Darwin in action I guess. Funny enough in HK they seem to drive OK.
    In Australia where I live, female Chinese drivers are considered the absolute worst and fair game for a one or two fingered salute.
    I've found the Germans to be by far the best drivers around. Just stay out of the left hand lane on the Autobahn if you're not in a real fast car.

    October 20, 2009 at 6:37 am | Reply
  21. Jeff

    After driving in China for over 6 years, one more tip (and this applies to just about anything). Don't leave a sliver of space between you and the car in front of you in traffic, otherwise the car next to you will push his way into this space. The same rule / tip applies when queing up in line for almost anything; leave a space in front of you and someone will come in from behind and take it. I learned my lessons early on at McDonald's!

    October 20, 2009 at 8:00 am | Reply
  22. Malc (Istanbul)

    Unfortunately it seems to suffer from almost exactly the same issues as many cities – and probably has he same solutions – many easy to implement which for some reason never get done.
    a) lack of understanding of any traffic rules.
    b) chaotic implementation and enforcement of any traffic rules that do exist.
    c) badly designed/signposted/controlled junctions.
    d) total disregard of any traffic rules by "drivers" of any "vehicle" with less than 4 wheels.
    e) inefficient city/building regulation requiring sufficient car parking space per building.

    October 20, 2009 at 8:55 am | Reply
  23. Malc (Istanbul)

    oops – add on
    Pedestrian crossings – should be outlawed unless controlled by lights. My first advice to anyone visiting Istanbul is to avoid pedestrian crossings – they are an invitation to an early grave for anyone visiting from a country where pedestrian crossing are used properly.

    October 20, 2009 at 8:57 am | Reply
  24. arjay

    Lots of places like China. Try driving in the streets of Greater Manila in the Philippines. If you survived it, you're a winner.

    October 24, 2009 at 6:12 am | Reply
  25. Grace

    if you give any hint that you might want to change lanes, that just means the guy in the other lane is going to speed up to keep you out

    Is it the same here in the US?

    November 1, 2009 at 7:01 pm | Reply
  26. F.A. Hutchison

    I've lived in China for four years, cycling some 20,000KM. Yes, the most dangerous thing I do in China is get on my bicycle and hit the road! It's the situation here: new highways, a fascination with the motor vehicle (no longer bicycle friendly), inexperienced drivers, and the rush for money! Additionally, like one commenter said, 'There's no enforcement of the traffic regulations! The Traffic Police only interested in checking licenses/documents to make the Gov. more RMB. They could care less about your safety! I'll never forget a 100KM section of highway #312 in Shaaxi Province. I counted 7 truck accidents!
    So, you better be extra careful on the roads/highways in China!

    December 26, 2009 at 11:54 pm | Reply

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