Driving in China vs. Driving in USA

Posted by on August 8, 2012

In the Midst of Traffic

As we get ready to repatriate to the US I’ve been keeping track of the things that are different between driving in the US and China. These are also a list of things I have learned about how to drive in China.  This is my perception based on driving in China for the past 14 months and might be interesting for native Chinese drivers who’ll be driving in the US or those starting to drive in China.

China has a relatively new driving culture (as Hessler points out in his excellent book Country Driving) and things are fairly chaotic as viewed from a someone used to driving in the US, though I’ve had folks tell me its nothing like driving in India. I’ve really loved driving in China (more in a later post about what I will miss and love about China), but China has very strong defensive and offensive driving culture and those two factors feed on each other. The strong offense requires a strong defense, this driving behavior is rooted in a more general cultural phenomenon of aggressiveness I call the “get ahead” behavior.

For example right after the plane touches down on the runway, before the plane stops taxing, long before you arrive at the gate and the seat belt sign turns off, most Chinese jump out of their seats, grab their stuff from the overhead bin and line up to exit the plane. Or when lining up for the bus or the subway or the bank or at the grocery store, people will crowd, push, cut in line and attempt to get there first. This behavior seems exaggerated in the large cities where the population density is much greater and seems to generate from a feeling of there are so many people and such few resources that if you don’t push to get ahead you may not get anything. This is viewed as rude when viewed through the eyes of a Westerner but doesn’t seem to be much of a big deal to most Chinese, though there is chatter at times about being more “civilized”. Anyway this carries over to driving behavior in Beijing as well.

Here are the areas where things are different :

  • Honking
    In China your horn is your weapon, your warning signal to the other cars and pedestrians. Don’t try that, don’t do that, look out, I am coming or I am here.  In America : no horn unless a true I am gonna crash emergency or you just want to be rude or you need to react to a really rude driver.
  • Policeman
    In China police don’t matter at all.  When you see police cars often with their lights flashing you feel nothing, no fear, no concern and no regard.  You can pass them, you can speed past them, you can cut them off and they pay you no mind as you pay them none.   You never see any policeman on patrol, they never pull cars over and give tickets.  98% of the tickets are given by cameras, which they usually warn you are coming up ahead with a sign.  The one place that you do really have to pay attention to policeman is along ChangAn Jie near Tiananmen Square and the Peoples Congress, they are little more “I mean business” in these areas, you really can’t turn left on ChangAn Jie or not pay attention to instructions when given.  Of course you always want to obey the military police, but that is also another long story.
    In America when you see a police car you immediately fell fear, not because they will hurt you, but that they’ll pull you over for some traffic violation.  After all I’ve been in handcuffs at the side of the road, but that’s another story entirely.  I will have to readjust my “oh crap there is a policeman reaction”.
  • Pedestrians :
    In China they have NO right of way.  I have tried to stop for people at crosswalks and they just stare at you vacantly and wait for you to proceed, confused at why your stopping.   At the same time a pedestrian’s follow the “get ahead” behavior and will cross whenever they can get an advantage be the light green or even red. They have the following crossing strategies :

    • the “no-look-you-can’t-see-me-you-can’t-hit-me” strategy : if you don’t make eye contact and they can’t see you seeing them you have to swerve around them.  They will walk in the street or across the road and you have no choice but to honk loudly to spur them to action or usually slow down or stop to let them cross.  Making it as far as you can is the key to getting across the street and they will start across the street any time, the light could be green but on the last second before turning red and they will start across.   Often there will be a pedestrian in the middle of the road on the painted line with two lanes of traffic swirling around him.
    • power in numbers : a group will gather strength in numbers and inch out into road, slowly cutting off cars as the flow stops and goes due traffic jams. Eventually they will be enough to block the car and step across, again forward progress at all cost.

    In America the pedestrian has a right of way but at least you don’t generally have to worry about them jay walking in front of you at any random moment without regard to the color of the light.

  • Lanes
    In China : they are suggestions and don’t really matter, you can fill them in with as many cars as can physically fit into the space.  Interestingly bike lanes are observed and honored, though most often this is because there is a physical barrier separating the car lanes from the bike lanes either a concrete curb or a metal fence fastened to the road.  And because most everyone driving today once rode a bike everyone is very bike aware and there is none of the American attitude of : “hey bike, get out of my way and off my road”!
    In America : I will have to stay in the lanes.
  • Highway Driving
    In China its perfectly acceptable to drive on the shoulder of the highway, well maybe not acceptable according to the written law, but since there are no highway patrol people do it all the time. If all the lanes are blocked and you really want to get ahead pull into the shoulder and speed on down the road.  Or if the traffic backed up and your exit is coming up, drive on the shoulder to get access to your exit.  Also its fairly common to drive the wrong way down a road, especially if the road has two lanes and its not super busy.  I’ve done it myself a few time in a pinch instead of turning around.  I’ve even seen huge trucks with lights flashing speeding the wrong way down the shoulder on the highway on the way to Datong.
    In America : none of this acceptable, except maybe super super late at night after a concert when everyone is trying to exist side roads and get to the freeway.
  • Turning
    In China when you turn right there is no need to stop or even really look, you just drive moderately slow and merge into traffic, people are expected to stop for you. You also don’t have to stop on a red light to turn right, just cruise on through if you can.  This is as true on a bike as it is in car.Also when turning left you adopt the “get ahead” strategy of  the Boston Turn :  you either very quickly turn left before on-coming traffic can start going straight, or you slowly crawl your car forward until you block traffic and can proceed to turn.  Often when one car start this someone pull forward on their right and stack in front of them and then cars will turn further left behind them as the car pulls left, effectively “hiding” behind the car turning left in front of them.  Additionally if there is a left turn on a road with two lanes moving in the same direction drivers turning left will pull into the on coming lane, effectively blocking one lane of oncoming traffic.  When on coming traffic makes a right turn the opposite left turning car will us the right hand turn car as a shield to turn left.  Usually people will follow on behind and inside stopping all oncoming traffic and allowing multiple cars to sneak in a left hand turn.  This behavior is especially bad at rush our time with traffic can snarl with seemingly untangleable jams as no one is willing to give an inch and no one can even unblock the snarl because everyone crowds in behind.Another acceptable strategy is the drive-around-u-turn.  Lets say you want to make a u-turn but there are multiple cars ahead of you and the light is red.  If there is room you can just pull to the right of the cars (often temporarily blocking the bike lane)  and swing out around them and make the u-turn.

    In America
    : I have made a Boston Turn when I was in an extreme hurry and I thought I could get away with it but I knew if I got caught it would be a ticket for sure, in China there is no fear of tickets.
  • Ambulances
    In China no on pays them mind. You don’t have to get out of their way.  Heaven forbid if someone is truly dying and needs to get to a hospital.  And they really don’t even try that hard to drive fast, they just roll along in traffic at normal speeds with their sirens blaring and lights blinking.  I’ve never seen firetruck driving on the road. In fact for a large city you rarely hear that many sirens. I hear more sirens in background noise on conference calls with Seattle than I do living in Beijing on the busy 4th Ring Road with my windows open at night.  In America : when you hear a siren you have to immediately pull over the right and give them the right of way.

I’ll add more as I think of any new ones but in general I have enjoyed the freedom of driving in China.  Especially on the freeways where there are so few cars that once your out of the city the roads are fairly empty.  I’ll miss driving in Beijing and it’ll be an adjustment driving in the US, not quite as fun.  But I’ve got my Chinese Driver’s license and I’ll be back. 😉

5 Responses to Driving in China vs. Driving in USA

  1. Theron

    Good article. I actually prefer the Chinese system for these reasons:

    1) Way more free. The US is overburdened with so many rules that no one knows them all and even excellent and safe drivers can be in conflict now and then without knowing. In China, primary rule is: don’t run the red light. Lately, with the advent of the cameras, a secondary one is “don’t go too fast where the cameras are”, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone dangerously speeding in China. Happens all the time in the US despite the multitude of rules and signs. There are no stop signs, there are no yield signs.
    2) Pedestrians don’t have the right of way. This is safer. The system doesn’t encourage people to blindly walk in front of cars expecting cars to stop. (Though in China people will do it anyway. :-p)
    3) There is no road rage. Have you ever seen it? I haven’t. Nothing serious, anyway.

    • Mark Griffith

      Great additional insights from someone who has been there. 😉

      I have actually seen people dangerously speed in Beijing. There is small street behind our apartment where people driver at times 40 mph and that is way too fast for the narrowness of the street and the fact that pedestrians are around. One of the few times when I feel genuine concern for my children’s safety and I hold them back and make them cross with me. I fear this could be a trend that continues, especially in light of this kind of attitude. Also there is an additional level of disregard (speeding and general recklessness) that I see in the military plates (first red character on the license plate) and even more so with the military police (red WJ on the license plate). They are perceived in many ways as untouchable, same goes for the princelings (children of the extremely politically powerful or very rich).

      Regarding road rage, that is another great point that I forgot to mention. My road “anger” (I don’t think I’ve ever raged 🙂 ) has gone down driving in Beijing. I’ve grown much more patient. People just don’t tend to get angry driving here and you realize that there isn’t really any reason for you to do so either. Same goes for anger in the “get ahead” syndrom I mention, people generally aren’t angry about it.

  2. Shawn

    So am I the only one who wants to hear the story about you ending up in handcuffs on the side of the road? 😉

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