Dec 11, 2012 By Bo Brennan ,

For many expats, getting into a traffic accident has become an inevitable cost of living in China for any significant length of time. With the daily circus of cars, buses, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles and (oblivious) pedestrians—not to mention China's confusing right-of-way laws—even the most optimistic expat can't help but feel that there's constantly danger lurking just around the corner, across the street or approaching behind you. This past summer, I became painfully aware of this reality.

A Crash Course in Handling Traffic Accidents in China

I won't bog you down with all the details; let's just say it involved me riding a bicycle and an old lady getting off a bus. After the accident occurred, I stood off to the side as, predictably, I was surrounded by hundreds of curious passers-by, many of whom were shouting really loudly in Shanghainese. Eventually the police came, took some notes, there was more shouting, and me and the old lady went down to the police station to file a report while my bike was impounded. After a very long night in the police station and the hospital, the police officer said that I had to pay the full amount of damages to the ayi because I was on a bike and she was a pedestrian—despite the fact that he expressly stated that the fault of the accident was 50-50. This is because, in China…

It's always the bigger vehicle's fault

This is the general unspoken rule for all Chinese traffic accidents; it's the bigger vehicle's fault, regardless of whether or not it is actually the bigger vehicle's fault. Car hits a motorbike: car's fault. Motorbike hits a pedestrian: motorbike's fault. The officer down at my local police station confirmed this to be accurate (for all out-of-court cases), providing the following explanation: in China, the average person driving a "smaller vehicle"—a bicycle, scooter or motorbike—almost never has insurance that would be used to pay for damages to the other, larger vehicle in the event that it's their fault (they cannot afford it, hence the reason they're driving an e-bike and not a car). Over time, this phenomenon became a sort of unwritten law, resulting in the general consensus that paying for all damages in an accident is always the responsibility of the "bigger vehicle". For most accidents not involving a car, everything is paid out-of-pocket. When a car is involved, the driver will initially pay for damages out-of-pocket, and can be reimbursed later (after providing his insurance company with an accident report and fa piao for any hospital expenses).

If the two vehicles are the same size, and the accident is minor, then determining responsibility gets a bit more complicated. The police officer at my local police station mentioned, predictably, that most cases are solved right at the scene of the accident, with the drivers determining blame and handing over cash on the spot (to be dealt with later by their insurance companies). If a price cannot be agreed upon, a police officer will take down the necessary information, bring the two parties to the local station and act as an unofficial mediator. If they still cannot reach an agreement, then they arrange to go to court (see below).

In the case of my traffic accident, I was driving the "bigger vehicle", so I had to pay out-of-pocket to cover the injuries the old lady sustained. In addition—and a bit of surprise—I had to pay for her to hire another ayi to cover her housework gig for two months (she wasn't nearly two-monthsinjured, but that's a completely different issue). I was later informed that if she'd had had an official job, I would've had to pay her monthly salary for the time it took her to recover. After paying all of these expenses out-of-pocket, expats involved in traffic accidents as the "bigger vehicle" can file a claim with their insurance company, provided they have the above-mentioned materials (and assuming that you have the proper insurance). Conversely, if you don't have insurance, you'll be stuck footing the total bill.

Serious accidents and hit-and-runs

Thankfully, traffic accidents resulting in fatalities are less common in China than the minor accidents described above. However, "less common" here should be viewed as a relative term: according to an August 2012 WSJ article covering the 47-dead crash in Shaanxi Province, not only are official Chinese figures on traffic accidents and fatalities hazy at best, but also, according to the most accurate comparison possible, there's still at least three times as many traffic-related fatalities in China than in the United States per registered vehicle.  

The police officer told me that if you get into a serious traffic accident and someone is killed or seriously injured, the case will result in legal action and a possible criminal investigation from the police. Whenever someone is killed or otherwise indisposed at the crash site, they are required to conduct a formal investigation. And if they find probable cause then they will launch a criminal investigation (if one of the drivers was drunk, for example). Fear of criminal investigation and because you cannot very easily negotiate with an unconscious/dead person at the crash site, is no doubt one of the main reasons why so many drivers have a tendency to "hit-and-run" after an accident here.

Going to court: the nuclear option

While I was negotiating with the police officer and the old woman and her son at the police station, I got the distinct impression that going to court was being used as sort of a "nuclear option"; one that neither party—nor the police officer—wanted to deal with. I would threaten to go to court, then the son would threaten to go to court, and then the police officer would talk us back down and resume mediation. Without trying to sound too cynical, your chances of going to court after a fender bender and having the resulting process be worth your time, stress and money is pretty slim—for both parties involved. Although many foreigners might suspect (rightfully or not) a certain bias against them in the courtroom, it's worth noting that when it comes down to it, Chinese are no more eager than us to place their bets on China's…oft-criticized…legal system. Which is to say, we both eventually dropped the nuclear option and settled on an agreed amount in the police station. If they go for it (and you have access to the money), opt to pay all in one lump sum then and there. We hear many horror stories about the injured party calling back later on and demanding more than the originally agreed upon amount or complaining that the injuries are worse than originally thought; you can minimize the chances of this happening by settling immediately, and then hopefully you'll never hear from them again (I haven't).

Of course there are times when you cannot avoid going to court—i.e., you accidently kill someone with your vehicle. In this unfortunate instance, the police officer told me that both parties will have to file an official declaration stating their intent (if possible), and a court date will be arranged for a later date according to your local traffic judge's schedule. Then the police officer will go about collecting evidence (witness statements, video footage, etc.) for the case and the two parties involved will do what they need to prepare for the case (arranging lawyers, organizing their arguments, calling in all of their guanxi etc).

Handling traffic accidents like a pro

1) Keep your passport, FEC, residence permit, bank card (or copies) on you at all times
When I had my accident, I wasn't carrying my passport. I did have my American driver's license, which, at the scene of the accident was fine. However, when we got to the police station, I had to call my roommate to bring my passport, or they wouldn't let me leave the police station. Once my passport checked out, they didn't ask me for anything else. That being said, in these "post-illegal foreigner crackdown" times, it certainly doesn't hurt to have your FEC resident permit or other official documents on hand. It also goes without saying that you should have your bankcard on you; if you're deemed responsible, you'll likely be making a prompt withdrawal from the bank account to pay for hospital bills and other damages. In my case, the police officer actually escorted me to the ATM, presumably to make sure that I didn't run off.

2) Don't drink and drive, obviously
While everyone knows you shouldn't drink and drive a car, the consensus on drinking and driving a scooter, bicycle or other "small vehicle" is decidedly less clear—despite the consequences being similarly severe. If, following a traffic accident, the police officer notices any alcohol on your breath or any indication that you are drunk, not only are you instantly liable for the accident, but the police can also conduct a criminal investigation on you, even if you're on a bicycle. It's likely that the post-accident process is already stacked against you; there's no need to make it any worse.

3) Keep contact information of a friend to call in case of serious accident handy
After my accident occurred, I wasn't even slightly injured, so I had no problem contacting my roommate and Chinese friends to help out. However, it's a good idea to keep a small emergency contact form (written out in Chinese) in your wallet or purse should you happen to be grievously injured in an accident. All you'll need is something to help the police in finding the right people to come and help (or pay the hospital bills). No need to overthink it either; a simple "如果我遇到问题,请给 [Tel #] 打电话" will get your point across.

4) In the event of an accident, stay calm
Though this applies anywhere, in China this is especially true. First and foremost, if you get into an accident and you are a foreigner, DO NOT start screaming and yelling or throwing punches. Not only will you lose credibility in the eyes of the police officer, you're 1) opening yourself up to further confrontation with the dozens of gathering onlookers, and 2) you'll likely end up an embarrassed meme on Weibo. It's already an incredibly stressful and frustrating situation to be in, but getting angry only turns the situation from bad to disastrous. In fact, I was told that it's often best to minimize contact with the other party until after the police officer arrives.

Related links
How To: Get a Driver's License in China
Take a Number: How to Handle a Chinese Hospital
7 Tips on How to Prepare for a Health Emergency in China

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Keywords: Handling traffic accidents in China deal with China traffic police China accident mediation

5 Comments Add your comment


JAY (Just Another Yangguizi)

"Dig a hole deep enough, and everyone will want to jump into it." - words of wisdom from the Firesign Theater.

Dec 11, 2012 11:52 Report Abuse



I had a car accident once. The only casualties were my tighty-whities and my olfactory senses. Please drive responsibly.

Dec 11, 2012 14:58 Report Abuse



Just wondering if this is the case only in Qingdao (where I live & like alot) or throughout China. That is, a minor, a very minor accident occurs between 2 vehicles, I'm talking a scratch or a broken tail light here etc and they dont move, waiting for police to arrive! No pulling over to side of road to allow traffic flow. Here we have peak hour, a 3 lane road, totally congested as is and then this situation adding more stress & time!! I understand the initial law drafted many years ago, when cars were relatively few, but hey this is 2012. This 'law' is totally outdated & makes no sense today with the amount of cars on the road and only getting worse. Oh yeh, about cars parking on footpaths and pedestrians having to (dangerously) walk on the streets & roads...ahh another story...

Dec 12, 2012 03:57 Report Abuse



Yeah, got in a car accident about a month ago. Skipping the boring details. In the west it was clearly the other guys fault. But because my Chinese sucks, the other driver (Chinese) capitalized on the opportunity and started to claim it was my fault. I patiently sat there, not saying anything because I knew the other driver was feeding the officer lies. So I waited for the right time to pounce. At first, the police officer bought into the other driver's story and it automatically became my fault...until... I whipped out the video I shot using my cell phone to show the officer exactly what happened and to disprove the Sh*t the other driver was selling to the officer. Then, I called my Chinese wife and she hit'em with a double blow by articulating beautifully the location and shape of the scratches on both vehicles, further proving my innocence and the Chinese driver's lies.

Words of advice...
-Let the other guy look like an idiot by allowing him to tell his story first. Then disprove him with cold evidence. It makes him lose face, and makes the officer angry because the driver assumes the officer is an idiot. (Assuming the officer is, in fact, not an idiot).

-Make sure you have evidence. Bring a cell phone with video capabilities with you at all times.

-Call a Chinese friend who you know will argue in your favor and not be shy about it. Preferably someone who can use logic well. As you're calling, watch closely to the other driver's hand gestures and body language and try to decipher what B.S. he is feeding the officer.

-Then skillfully appeal to the officer in a way that makes him look like a f*cking rocket scientist who can claim credit for his awesome Sherlock Holmes deductions.

Dec 12, 2012 05:16 Report Abuse



Regarding the video comment; Couldn't agree more. I have a GoPro affixed to my windshield and it records every second that I'm driving. Fortunately I haven't had an accident that required playback (I delete the files if nothing happens) but I've also saved a few of the idiotic moves/ accidents I've seen on the road. Regarding the question about people not moving their cars; yes, it's the same in Beijing and it's stupid because it aggravates an already hellish driving experience. The law actually says the cars can't be moved unless both parties agree on whose fault it is, but of course, nobody here wants to lose face and admit fault. As a result, even the dumbest little fender-benders exacerbate the already unbelievable traffic even if it is obvious who caused the accident.

Dec 13, 2012 22:34 Report Abuse