“Chaos”, “insane” and “kamikaze” are just a few vivid words you could use to characterize China’s complex traffic situation. If you’re a nervous driver in your own country then driving in China is going to magnify that anxiety a thousand times. There’s no place for hesitant and anxious driving on China’s aggressive roads, but there are some tips and tricks that will help you muddle through. Here we bring you a car driver’s guide to China’s chaotic roads.
Your Parking Skills Will Get Epic
To understand China’s driving habits, let’s begin bright and bold with some positives. Chinese drivers are undeniably good at parking. In China’s densely populated cities, it can seem as if the vehicle population outweighs the human population, and parking presents an unavoidable daily challenge for all drivers. Head into any residential area from 6pm onwards and you’ll be greeted by the sight of cars parked up in multiple rows along both sides of the entire street. Any minute space between the parked cars will likely be filled by one of those tiny three-wheelers which can slot themselves into the narrowest of spaces. While the result may be troublesome, the execution is impressive. If you drive in China for long enough, you too will learn Jedi parking skills.
Your Reflexes Will be Sharp
Chinese drivers can also be applauded for their fast reflexes. Chinese drivers are very quick to avoid danger, unlike many Westerners and drivers in other Asian countries whose reactions can be sluggish. A cynic would suggest this is because drivers in other countries follow the rules and make considerably fewer rash and life-threatening decisions, but let’s stay positive. As erratic driving is so common in China, you’ll naturally become attuned to expecting the unexpected.
The Bad, Oh, the Bad
By far the most common bad habit I’ve witnessed on China’s roads is mobile phone use while driving. Time and time again you see cars whiz by as the driver stares blankly at their phone or fights frantically for hong bao packets on Wechat, completely oblivious to what's going on around them. Is there an actual punishment in China for being caught on your mobile phone while driving? If there is, it’s certainly not being enforced as the traffic police don’t seem to give a fudge. Bus drivers, taxi drivers, chauffeurs, and even the police themselves are all at it. Watch out for it and don’t be tempted to immerse yourself in this aspect of local driving culture.
Lane hogging is also a common practice on the roads of the Middle Kingdom. Vehicles either sway between two or three lanes or provocatively drive directly on the lane dividers, taunting the traffic behind them to dare overtake. Other common bad habits include suddenly stopping bang in the center of a road, on a turn, or selfishly blocking a road opening while fiddling with the GPS. Feel free to lay on the horn when you encounter these guys, but try not to get too wound up. It’s just part of the course of driving in China.
You’ll often witness cars drive all the way out to the left turn lane, only to cut back across four lanes of traffic in order to make a right turn – all without a flash of the indicators. The use of indicators is definitely seen as optional in China. One newly licensed Chinese driver recently told me that people will try and take advantage of you if they know where you’re going, so it’s better to leave other drivers guessing and not use the indicators at all. I dare say this is risky advice to heed, though.
Heavy breaking is far too prevalent in China; if you’ve taken a public bus or taxi here you’ll be well aware of what I mean. Some bus and taxi drivers show zero concern for their passengers’ safety, speeding down roads before suddenly screeching to a halt at the bus stop or traffic lights. It’s astonishing that the brakes on Chinese vehicles last so long considering the pressure they face on a daily basis. I’ve slid off my seat several times due to the double-whammy of drivers slamming on their brakes and the blanket lack seat belts on public transport. It’s therefore a wise idea to maintain a safe distance between you and the car in front.
YouTube videos abound of pedestrians intentionally throwing themselves into slow moving cars in China before screaming for compensation. It’s a nightmare for drivers if no cameras catch the incident as Chinese traffic law tends to place blame on the vehicle. There have also been cases where pedestrians would crawl under a car, wailing in “pain”, as it waits at the traffic lights. Such scams can cost a driver a fortune in fake insurance claims, so it’s best to bite the bullet and invest in a dashboard cam right away. Just think of all the fascinating footage of traffic jams you can take home with you!
What to Do in a Car Accident in China
If you ever, god forbid, find yourself involved in a traffic accident in China, depending on the seriousness of the accident there are two ways to resolve it: either between yourselves and your insurance companies or by involving the police.
If the accident was between two vehicles, no-one was seriously injured and one party admits fault, both parties can fill out a “speedy report form” (快速处理) and bypass a lot of hassle by simply notifying the insurance companies of the accident after the event. This scenario negates the need to block the entire road while waiting for the police to arrive. The forms, which you should keep in your car just in case, can be obtained from your local transport authority or downloaded here. Make sure you take multiple photos of the vehicles involved and all the other party’s details (including a photo of their ID card) before leaving the scene.
In the case of a serious accident or a debate over who is at fault, it’s better call the traffic police on 122 (or the police on 110) and photograph the scene while you wait for them to arrive and determine fault. In these cases it is best not to admit to any fault or move the vehicles until the police arrive, despite the pressure you may face from other drivers. And now you know why so many drivers in China cause huge pileups doing exactly that.
All in all, it’s a dog-eat -dog world on China’s roads. Keep your wits about you, drive with confidence, and try not to get too mad.
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